By Tracy Correa
The two dozen people who live and work at the Helms Pumped Storage Plant, a facility that’s sometimes called a “hidden power plant” because of its remote location some 7,000 feet up in the Sierra Nevada Mountains, are a tight-knit group.
Some even call it a family.
For nearly 1 million PG&E customers, the hydro-electric facility about two hours northeast of Fresno provides critical electricity. For those who travel the long and winding roads to visit Helms, the plant buried deep inside a granite mountain reveals itself as an engineering marvel. But for the cluster of PG&E workers and their families it is simply “Helms” and it is home.
It takes a dedicated village to make sure this massive power generator, fueled by the Sierra Nevada snowpack, runs like clockwork. Helms can generate up to 1,212 megawatts of electricity, enough to power about 900,000 homes. It’s a good example of the clean power that PG&E provides for its customers.
Making sure pumping between the upper Courtright Lake and lower Wishon Reservoir and water releases go off with precision is a difficult job, said David Lipe who spends many work days inside the belly of the plant.
“It’s a choreographed dance every day,” said Lipe, an electrical technician who has been with PG&E for three decades – since he was 18 — much of that time at Helms.
Workers share a special bond
Work at the plant can be dangerous. That’s why trust is big here and the workers are as close as family, workers say. They rely on each other, especially those whose entire work day takes place deep inside the plant accessible only by traveling down a 1,700-foot-long tunnel.
But these PG&E employees also share a special bond because – as campers and boaters come and go with the seasons – they’re about the only permanent residents up here in these mountains. While there are other PG&E hydro plants with workers living on site, the Helms community is the largest.
It’s isolated and remote and you won’t last up here if you want to be near the mall or grocery store, said George Arabia, first hydro clerk at Helms. But there’s a certain appeal, he said: “It’s absolutely beautiful. … You just can’t explain it.”
The first thing you notice when entering Helms is the office headquarters. The non-descript, no-frills brown building is set against a majestic backdrop of towering trees and granite mountains. PG&E work trucks with their familiar logos are parked out front. Behind the office, there’s a compound that includes 20 dorm rooms (each with two beds, TV, desk and chair), guest rooms, a dining hall and a recreation room. It all resembles a community of log cabins found in so many mountain locations.
Surroundings are simple, indicative of the laid-back life that Helms workers seem to enjoy. They take pride in a unique lifestyle that most people can’t appreciate.
Planning life ‘a little differently’
A doctor’s appointment is a half-day trip into Fresno or Clovis. Cell phone reception is nonexistent, lost 45 minutes down the hill. Trips into town take longer if there’s snow on the road; last year’s accumulated snow fall was 48 feet.
Most folks buy groceries in bulk.
“You just have to plan a little differently,” said Arabia.
He has lived at Helms eight years, but drives home to Fresno every weekend to be with his family.
Some Helms workers have been here more than 20 years and if living and working in such an isolated area were a hassle, you’d never know it.
“We work every day where people come on vacation,” said Julianne “Julie” Lipe, who has worked here 16 years, first as facilities supervisor, then housekeeper and now cook. Her husband is David Lipe and they are one of three married couples at Helms.
Most Helms workers live in onsite housing or just down the winding mountain road in PG&E-owned homes. Children who live at Helms can attend Pole Corral Elementary School. The Lipes’ 11-year-old son Garrett was the only student at the school for several years until his cousin Alexandria moved in and became his classmate. An unusual partnership between PG&E, the Sierra Unified School District and the state keeps the one-room school open for PG&E families.
Den mother with a streak of purple
Julie Lipe, with her piercings, tattoos and a streak of purple in her hair, is a colorful fixture in the kitchen and dining hall here where she oversees meals for workers and guests. On-site meals here are a necessity since the nearest restaurant is 30 miles away in Shaver Lake.
Like a den mother, she makes sure workers get a proper, home-cooked meal. “I’m kind of everyone’s mom up here,” she said.
The number of seasonal workers at Helms can swell to 80 when plant maintenance is underway. Most will stay in the dorms, which is also why there are housekeepers on staff.
Back at the Helms office, David Lipe is working with a new employee. Lipe wears a baseball cap, long-sleeve pullover shirt and faded blue jeans. He also wears part of Helms’ unofficial uniform for men: a thick, wiry, beard. Think Grizzly Adams. It’s the norm, he said: “In hydro, there’s more whiskers, older crew.”
It’s not for everyone
Some employees don’t stick at Helms, Lipe said. People fall in love when they first set eyes on the beautiful scenery, but many can’t live here:
“They want to be remote and still get to Costco in half an hour,” he said. And that’s just not possible at Helms.
Despite the difficult and dangerous work, and despite (or perhaps because of) the isolation, maintenance supervisor David Slator wouldn’t want to be anywhere else. Sporting long hair and a thick, grey beard, he said nothing compares to the view from his mountain home.
Slator just wants to make sure that people know and appreciate the important work taking place at Helms and the role these dedicated PG&E employees play in supplying energy to California’s power grid.
“I think people may have forgotten about Helms,” he said, and that would be a shame.
Email Tracy Correa at email@example.com.