Small Changes Make a Big Difference
By Rachael Kvapil
Katie Mitchell thought she would only be in Fairbanks for a couple of months when she arrived in early 2020; however, fate had other ideas. A year after meeting her fiancé, she decided to make Interior Alaska her home and take a permanent position with Golden Valley Electric Association (GVEA) as a Plant Engineer II.
“I had a contract job for the University of Alaska Fairbanks when we met,” says Katie. “He serves in the National Guard, which meant moving would be hard for him. And I always thought Alaska is a cool place to come and enjoy the outdoors.”
As a plant engineer, Katie and her team handle several simultaneous capital projects that involve power plant sourcing, figuring out new equipment upgrades, and ways of running the power plant more efficiently. They also work on improving general processes and flow systems.
“We look at what we’re doing and how we can do better,” says Katie.
Katie is based in Fairbanks but visits the North Pole and Healy plants at least once a week, and more often if they are working on a larger collaborative project. She says her work at GVEA is different than her previous work at the University of Alaska Fairbanks. At UAF, she specifically helped commission a new boiler and worked out the kinks to get it up and running. With GVEA, the emphasis is maintaining and improving existing units. Most are standard, but some are customized for a specific job.
“The main difference is the equipment age and the end goal,” says Katie. “We undertake many cost-saving measures that we pass on to members.”
Katie says working in Alaska has opened up a whole new positive chapter in her life. She has received much feedback about the importance of her role at GVEA’s power plants. She was the 1st plant engineer GVEA had hired in a while that regularly serviced plants outside Fairbanks. In particular, the Healy staff has expressed gratitude for Katie by saying that her support of their local power plant makes them feel significant and more noticed all around.
Katie hopes to expand her department 1 day and involve more engineering disciplines. Currently, the available staffing is limited, so it takes more time to complete some projects. As a smaller company, GVEA doesn’t have massive resources or internal staff that can concentrate on a singular project. However, Katie says her team still accomplishes a lot throughout the year with intentional planning that involves all the key players in the conversation.
“It’s vital to communicate the project’s purpose and get input about developing something that will best work for people using it,” says Katie. At this time, Katie says there are 6 positions in her department.
Depending on the project stage, they will collaborate with other department engineers and plant operation managers to gain insight into daily activities. Katie hopes that as the team expands, they can add a project manager to focus on paperwork, logistics and contracts. She says the most successful people in her field aren’t afraid to get their hands dirty and really dig into issues. Likewise, they are willing to work side by side with the maintenance and operating team and truly understand what issues are important to them.
Katie grew up in Ohio. Since moving to Alaska, she has taken the opportunity to enjoy summer and winter outdoor activities such as hiking, camping, cross-country skiing and running. She also has several indoor hobbies, such as baking, cross-stitching and sewing.