A second-generation Duke Energy employee, Don Ligon’s outgoing, friendly personality is a welcome surprise. Considering Don’s office is responsible for operations of the Lake Wylie dam and hydroelectric plant we expected more of a drill instructor’s temperament.
Don’s official title is Manager of Regulated Renewables Operation Center. His office, based out of Charlotte, not only oversees the Lake Wylie dam and hydro-plant but also the thirty-four other dams and hydro-plants owned by Duke Energy. They manage the company’s solar energy sites as well.
On a sunny, cool April morning we met Don at the Lake Wylie dam. He generously invited us up to the hydro-plant to discuss how day to day operations have changed since he first started with the company over forty years ago.
Don is a Charlotte native and grew up in Steele Creek. In the summer of 1975 Don graduated Olympic High School and got a part-time job cutting grass for the local utility company Duke Power. Once the summer had ended Duke offered Don a position as the youngest operator ever to work at the Lake Wylie dam. He was just seventeen years old.
With a chuckle Don says, “Duke told me, ‘We’ll give you the operator job, but you better behave yourself!’ So that’s when I started full-time with the company.”
“In early years it used to be all about optimizing the water for company profit and the benefit of the rate payer,” explains Don. “Hydro is a less expensive power source compared to coal or nuclear. If the company needed more power then they’d call from Charlotte down to the Wylie dam and say, ‘Hey, start up another generator. Put a system online.’ They’d load it up.”
Fast forward several decades. The company’s name and reach have changed. Duke Power is now Duke Energy. The once local utility provider now oversees hydro, nuclear and solar energy plants across multiple states. Federal guidelines have changed as well.
To stay compliant per their licensing agreement with the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC), Duke Energy is now required to follow certain guidelines. Environmental and recreational interests now play major roles in day to day operations at the Lake Wylie dam.
“The first focus is always to make sure oxygen levels in the water are where they should be,” says Don. “You don’t want fish going belly-up.”
“The FERC also requires that we do weekly recreational water releases down the river as we head into the summer months. We run one unit on the weekends from 10am to 3pm so people can put canoes, kayaks and rafts in at the boat landing below the dam.”
Don explains that, “releasing water on the weekends is not the most optimal time for company profit because the weekends are not really a peak time for energy consumption. Businesses, industries and stores are closed on the weekends. You don’t have the same energy usage on the weekends, but our priority is the licensing agreement we have with FERC. Ultimately, it’s the right thing to do, and a good way to operate.”
Beyond federal requirements, technology has significantly changed management of the Lake Wylie dam.
“When I first started we had 10 operators and 2 maintenance people stationed here at the Wylie dam full-time around the clock,” says Don. “When we updated the equipment [in the 1990s] it put Duke in position to monitor all of the hydro plants from one central location – my office in Charlotte.”
A series of old photographs hang on the walls at the Wylie hydro-station. There is a plaque of photos showing the original “Catawba Hydro” dam from 1904. Another plaque of photos capture the newly rebuilt 1925 dam after the devastating 1916 Catawba River flood.
Don gets excited about a large clock hanging prominently in between the plaques. The clock is well over one hundred years old and was originally in use at the dam in 1904. Don explains how at one point, senior executives at Duke Energy unsuccessfully tried relocating the historic timepiece with intentions of displaying it at the Charlotte corporate office. Don smiles while telling the story. You can hear the pride in his voice. Ultimately, the Lake Wylie dam operators managed to keep the clock on site.
Don Ligon’s good nature is genuine and extends to his life outside of work. In his spare time Don enjoys wood working. Years ago he partnered with the Charlotte-Mecklenburg school district to design, build and provide solid-oak desks for handicap students, a partnership that continues to this day.
“Through my church I met the head physical therapist over the Charlotte-Mecklenburg school district,” says Don. “The school system had these handicap desks that cost a lot of money. The desks had laminate tops, and they were tearing up. The schools had to buy new desks every year. So I came up with solid-oak desks and footboards. It’s a hobby for me. I make a little money to pay for my tools, but it’s a partnership. The schools are getting a good product at a better price. It’s a win-win.”
After an hour spent visiting with Don, an hour which flew by quickly, it’s obvious to us that Don’s knowledge, experience and hospitality are certainly a win-win for Lake Wylie.
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