Santee Cooper internships spark learning

Damon Tunnell, one of the 12 participants in Santee Cooper’s environmental internship program, graphs particulate emissions and summarizes data for the utility’s website at its headquarters.

A native of Moncks Corner, Ben Fleming Jr. knew even as a child that his career path would lead straight to Santee Cooper’s headquarters on Riverwood Drive.

“I wanted to work for Santee Cooper ever since I was in middle school,” said Fleming, the state-owned electric utility’s vice president of power generation. “My parents had friends that worked at Santee Cooper, and very early on in my life I decided that I wanted to become an electrical engineer.”

What Fleming didn’t know at the time was the amount of environmental work Santee Cooper does in addition to providing power to 2 million people statewide, either on its own or through a network of electric cooperatives it supplies.

That education came as part of an environmental internship Santee Cooper sponsors to give college students a better understanding of the utility’s renewable energy programs, air and water testing, thousands of acres of wildlife refuges and management of Lakes Marion and Moultrie and Old Santee Canal Park.

“It was eye-opening to see all of the things we do,” said Fleming, who was among the internship’s first class in 1991. “The internship gave me an appreciation for all the things Santee Cooper does outside of the power business and a greater appreciation for the protection of our natural resources and environment.”

These past two months, a dozen more college students from across South Carolina took part in Santee Cooper’s 25th environmental internship. Most are engineering students from Clemson University or the University of South Carolina. Others are studying biology or environmental sciences. All of them get a hands-on and behind-the-scenes look at the work Santee Cooper does to provide clean energy.

“Essentially, I’m getting to know how an entire company operates,” said Dalton Caine, a rising senior and civil engineering major at Clemson. “There’s a lot more to Santee Cooper than just power generation, which I didn’t realize before this.”

Recently, Caine spent time working in Santee Cooper’s “mercury trailer” — a mobile lab where the utility tests the amount of mercury coming out of the flues at electric generating stations throughout the state. Flue gas is caught in traps placed at the stations’ smokestacks and taken to Moncks Corner to make sure the readings match on-site monitors. A week or so before that, Caine was helping to determine the value of timber on some of Santee Cooper’s property.

“I had a lot of friends who had given me stories about how when they did internships they were just making copies,” Caine, a Columbia native, said. “I knew in this program I’d be doing a lot more than just busy work.”

Caine said working with professionals out in the field provides a better learning experience than a computer screen or textbook.

“If I was watching this on a slideshow, I wouldn’t learn as much,” he said.

The opportunity to do a variety of tasks is one of the things that drew Damon Tunnell to the program.

“A week ago I was trying to sort out mosquitoes in vector management,” Tunnell said, referring to Santee Cooper’s pest management program. “Today, I’m working on Excel trying to figure out the best way to represent a graph. Next week, I’ll be testing water supplies. I like being out and about rather than being stuck in one place.”

Tunnell, a rising junior at Clemson, is studying computer engineering. The Loris native said Santee Cooper is on his list of places he’d like to work, in part because of the camaraderie.

“I like working in teams,” he said. “Last year, I was in a different internship working mostly by myself. I didn’t enjoy that as much.”

The 10-week internship program takes part each summer, with a dozen participants nominated by state and federal legislators as well as the state’s electric cooperatives. The interns live in a home at the Moncks Corner headquarters, receive a food allowance and are paid $13 an hour for their work.

The program includes nine areas of environment-related work, or rotations, and each intern takes part in three rotations that last two weeks apiece. The interns also take part in team-building classes, safety training, lake tours and a weeklong overview of Santee Cooper’s operations. Among the field trips this year was a visit to the now-closed Grainger electric plant in Conway, where Santee Cooper is conducting a coal-ash recycling program that converts waste to material that can be used in asphalt and concrete products.

The interns also spend a week working on a research project that is presented to company CEO Lonnie Carter and other executives. This year’s project focused on Act 236, a state law that allows home and business owners to lease solar panels and sell excess solar-generated power to utilities at full retail credit.

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Cile Spivey has run the program for 17 years, matching interns with rotations she hopes they will find most interesting, keeping interns on track to meet program goals and making sure the day-to-day schedule flows smoothly.

“Any time you get 12 different personalities involved, there’s always room for unexpected things,” she said, adding that the most stressful time is during the third week, when the interns are working together on the research project. “They are together constantly that week, so if something’s going to go wrong that’s usually the week it will happen. This year’s group, though, survived and thrived.”

Most of the interns who go through the program never return to Santee Cooper for full-time jobs after graduation. Many move on to environment-related careers, Spivey said, but the program has also hosted students majoring in interior design, math, history and other fields of study.

Spivey said some end up working as consultants or for the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency or state Department of Health and Environmental Control.

“We’ve had interns that went on to become lawyers and doctors. We had one English major who wanted to combine her love of writing with the environment,” she said.

Domenic Ciccolella was one of those who came back to Santee Cooper. A member of the 2004 class of interns, Ciccolella is now senior engineer for air quality, measuring pollutants and particulate matter emitting from smokestacks at the utility’s generating stations.

Ciccolella, a Hanahan native now living in Summerville, said he had the chance to work at a chemical plant in Texas after graduating from Clemson but chose Santee Cooper based on his internship experience.

“When you go to work as an intern here they show you every detail, from where the coal comes off the train to where the emissions come out of the stack,” Ciccolella said. “You get a little taste of everything, and I think that gives you an idea of what’s possible when you work for a company.”

Reach David Wren at 937-5550 or on Twitter at @David_Wren_