How Much Does a 500,000 volt Electrical Transformer Cost?

True Stories from the 20th Century at Pacificorp

By John Cheek[1]

© May 2004

How Much does a 500,000 volt Electrical Transformer Cost?

I spent eight years of my career as the Project Manager on a 550-mile long 500,000-volt electric transmission line. The project attracted a lot of media attention and much of the positive attention was generated by press releases written by Glen Gillispie or Delores Chenoweth of Pacific’s Communication Department. I found most television and radio reporters are nice and treated me fairly. One exception occurred when a rookie reporter from a Portland TV station grilled me with questions suggesting that the line might kill hundreds and hundreds of ducks who would fly into the line in the Klamath Basin. Not getting the answers she wanted her bias finally spilled over with a frustrated comment to her cameraman, “Shut it down. I’m not getting what I want.” The evening television news showed hundreds of ducks flying along while the reporter overtalked about the danger of the ducks colliding with the proposed transmission line.

My favorite TV interview occurred in Medford, Oregon. The local TV was covering the first electric transformer being brought in from the factory. As the large oversize truck, named “Enormous,” with the huge transformer aboard came into the waiting TV setup behind me the reporter asked, “How much did that monstrous transformer cost?”

My boss, Steve Roussos, a big gruff Greek electrical engineer, had provided me with a crib sheet containing all the technical information for answering any possible question I might be asked about the transformer. Oh crap, I though. I had studied that crib sheet thoroughly on the hour long flight from Portland to Medford and the cost of the transformer was not on that sheet. The crib sheet had all the electrical data and the physical data but I was certain the cost was not included.

Fortunately, a fellow employee, Bob Beadnell, had recently told me a humorous and, fortunately, a relevant story. Bob managed a large coal fired generating plant near Centralia, Washington. A State politician on a dignitary tour of the plant asked him how much the plant weighed? The obvious answer is, “That’s a stupid question. Who cares?” However, by definition, a politician never asks a stupid question. Of course Beadnell had no idea what the plant weighted but he knew how much it had cost and he had recently read that nearly all manufactured things cost about one dollar per pound. So, he just switched the dollars of costs to pounds and told the politician who was duly impressed.

My situation was the reverse. I knew how much the transformer weighed but didn’t have the slightest idea of its cost. What the heck, I just switched pounds to dollars and said it confidently into the TV camera.

Back in Portland Roussos asked me how the interview went? “It didn’t go well at all,” I said. “The TV reporter asked me a question for which the answer was not on that crib sheet you gave me”

“What did he ask?” replied Roussos with a look of astonishment.

“He asked me how much the transformer cost. That was not on your crib sheet so I used the Beadnell technique to answer.”

“What the hell are you talking about, Cheek?

I told Roussos about switching the weight to dollars and using that as my answer.

“You what? That can’t possibly be.” Then he started digging through a file drawer, came up with a piece of paper and exclaimed, “Well, I’ll be damned. It’s within a few percent.”

[1] Mr. Cheek has written dozens short stories under the general headings of True Stores from the 20th Century at Pacificorp and Digressions of J. Charles. He is also the author of the novel Stay Safe, Buddy – A Story of Humor and Horror during the Korean War,300 pages, Publish America ISBN # 159286631X

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