An Eye on the Future
Northline Utilities LLC (NLU), an electrical contractor, based in Au Sable Forks, New York, is a busy firm with a wide array of services. In addition to electrical-based construction work, NLU offers consultation services to the utilities industry; technical training through a series of complementary companies; and project and construction management. Northline also has a foot in the fast-growing renewable energy sector in New York State.
Regardless of the job, employees at NLU take a huge amount of pride in their work, an attitude evident in the company motto, “Power is Our Business. Pride is Our Choice.” Nathaniel Ashe, a Northline project manager, explains: “There are a lot of competitors out there. We pride ourselves on being customer-focused with a strong project management core.”
Founded in 2006, Northline constructs, maintains, and upgrades electric distribution systems, substations, and transmission lines. Construction work for medium and light transmission lines includes installing various foundations, lattice structures, steel and wood pole structures, conductor wires, fiber optic ground wire, and fiber optic cable of all varieties.
Its clients are regional electric cooperatives, major investor-owned utilities, and renewable energy EPC (engineering, procurement, construction) firms. As a Union contractor, Northline Utilities has been an active member of the National Electrical Contractors Association (NECA, the self-described “voice of the electrical construction industry”) since 2006.
At present, the company is firmly focused on its home-state. “We primarily work in New York, but NLU also works all over the northeast, including all of New England, New Jersey, and the five boroughs of New York City, and we have expanded to other states such as Ohio and Pennsylvania as well,” says Ashe.
Northline currently has 186 employees, up from 169 last year. NLU construed $60 million in revenues last year and is expected to maintain the same revenue stream for 2016. Starting in 2017, however, Northline officials anticipate a rapid rise in company revenue.
Northline’s commitment to professionalism and hard work were put to use following the destruction unleashed by Hurricane Sandy. The storm caused significant damage to the East Coast electrical grid in 2012.
After the hurricane had lifted, “Northline Utilities assisted in the restoration of power lines throughout New York, Vermont and Pennsylvania. This assistance was provided for both large companies like Con Ed, Green Mountain Power, and NYSEG (New York State Electric and Gas), as well as communities and individuals affected,” says Northline project manager, Russell Brearley.
Northline’s efficiency and dedication involving electrical restoration was acknowledged through “numerous letters expressing gratitude towards the professionalism of our staff and how quickly and efficiently they were in solving problems presented to them … although Sandy has been the largest storm Northline Utilities has [done restoration work for], we have also had crews at all the major storms that have hit the Northeast for the past several years. We are continually ready to help when or if the next storm should occur and continue to grow and develop our best practices for storm work to be better prepared for future situations,” says Brearley.
Innovative solutions to challenging problems are what the company embraces, as demonstrated in a recent project with which Northline was involved. “In 2014, Northline Utilities started work on a project the Clay-General Electric #14 Line,” says Brearley.
“The goal of this project was to increase the thermal rating of a seven-mile stretch of conductor that stretched through a wetland and required the replacing of nearly fifty transmission structures,” Brearley explains. “The wetland restrictions made access to this project very difficult and required ingenuity. Northline’s solution was to use specialized monopole foundations, the most cost-effective solution with the smallest environmental footprint. Construction started early 2014 and continued until late 2015 it demonstrated to us the importance of innovation in the field.”
Each project presents a new set of challenges. “Currently, we are working on a refurbishment project in [New York State] for National Grid. The project commenced at the Taylorsville substation and stretched to the Brown Falls substation. The scope of the project included a 30 mile stretch involving the removal and installation of shieldwire, poles, insulator, steel bracing, etc. This type of project is a particular specialty of Northline Utilities and therefore is a good example of the kind of work we do and look for,” says Brearley.
One thing all Northline projects, past and present, have in common is a focus on safety. Electrical employees can face a certain degree of danger on the job. To keep its workers protected, Northline boasts a deeply embedded safety culture.
“Our team places the highest importance on the safety and health of its employees and the employees of its subcontractors during the performance of its work. Accident prevention involves not only personal safety but also many other factors affecting the progress and efficiency of the work, such as the mechanical condition of the equipment, equipotential grounding procedures, materials handling and storage, vehicle control, and fire prevention. It is our team’s goal to complete all work in an efficient, productive manner incorporating safe working methods and strong safety consciousness by all our project personnel,” explains Brearley.
As part of the company’s project management plans, Northline “develops site-specific Environmental Health and Safety Plans (EHASP) for each [assignment], which includes all safety related rules, programs, and plans,” he says.
The company has safety professionals who keep a close watch on every worksite and provide assistance to crew members to ensure safety regulations are carried out. “These same professionals conduct safety inspections, which also include a close examination of any equipment involved in a given project and pre-job briefings. At Northline we promote that everyone is a Safety Supervisor.” Northline Utilities offers safety incentive pay, for which all employees become eligible after a period of continuous service. The company also utilizes an online application called SafetyNet that allows for real-time job site assessments.
Northline has added some new services to its roster through complementary companies. This includes North East Live Line, Northline Energy, and Northline Professional Services.
“North East Live Line provides consulting to the utilities industry in program development and training. This includes both technical and ‘soft-skill’ training as per the request of the client. The training provided can be on-site, computer-based, ‘train-the-trainer,’ or a blended form of the three. Currently, the technical training provided is equipotential grounding and live line procedures and operations, some of which we have exclusive copyrights to,” explains Brearley.
Northline Energy, meanwhile, was launched in 2014 following “the purchase of a hydroelectric plant, assisting in our development of solar and wind energy expertise. We are currently looking into the possibility of implementing solar energy and net metering at our hydro and project locations.” It is a wise move, given the huge current interest in renewable energy.
Last year, another new firm called Northline Professional Services was set up to provide project and construction management services. “To date, we have supplied project managers and construction managers to several other utilities, and we are looking to expand the services we offer to safety, environmental, and QA/QC [Quality Assurance/Quality Control] professionals,” says Brearley.
“We are always looking for new opportunities in the industry, but at this time, we have no plans for starting additional complementary services,” he adds.
Northline officials envision an expansion in electrical generation from renewable sources in the company’s home state. This expansion is being pushed along in part by concerns about the environment but also by government legislation.
“Over the past several years, we have seen significant growth in wind and solar projects. This is driven by clean energy initiatives such as Reforming the Energy Vision (REV) initiative introduced by Governor Andrew Cuomo, which aims to make New York fifty percent renewable energy dependent by 2030,” says Brearley.
“We are a local, family-owned company who pride themselves in giving back to the community,” says Ashe. “There are a number of local charities and events that Northline sponsor including Mountain Lake PBS, DozerFest, and many more … NLU employs a number of local people and has a close relationship with Clarkson University, with whom they have a graduate/intern program.” Based in Potsdam, New York, Clarkson is a technological university offering courses in fields such as engineering, business, sciences, and liberal arts
“Overall, Northline is a small community-driven company that is quickly growing to meet the needs and opportunities of the utilities industry. We pride ourselves on our safety practices and culture, and we are excited to continue doing good work in the years to come,” adds Ashe.
As for where Brearley and Ashe see the company five years from now, if all goes to plan, Northline’s bottom-line is set to rise rapidly. “The market is showing a steep increase in work from mid-2017. Northline is forecasting growth over the next five years to circa $80 to $90 million,” says Ashe.