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Oklaunion Power Plant Remembered as Great Place to Work

by on October 1, 2020

The Oklaunion power plant near Vernon, Texas, weathered cold snaps, drought, heat waves, market changes and even a tornado in its 34 years of operation.

The coal-fired plant, commissioned by West Texas Utilities in the early 80s, will close Sept. 30 as part of a planned shutdown.

Set in west Texas between the small towns of Vernon and Electra, near the border with Oklahoma, the employees of Oklaunion forged the sort of culture sought at workplaces everywhere.

“It’s the best place I have ever worked,” said Monte McMahon, vice president of generation assets at SWEPCO, and a former Oklaunion plant manager. “The employees are like family to me. There just has been no better place to work; it was the most enjoyable assignment that I have ever had.”

Many current and former Oklaunion workers expressed the same feeling of family, of hard work, of loving the people and the place.

“I’ve worked with a lot of good people out here,” said James McSpadden, material handling supervisor, who has worked at the plant for 31 years. “This is one of the best places to work in all of AEP, but I’m partial.”

“My first shift supervisor, Dean Ellis, he left a lasting impression on me, in how I wanted to be and how I wanted to lead” said David Robbins, senior plant support specialist. “We were not just teammates, we were best friends.”

“We were the can-do plant,” said Michelle Everett, administrative supervisor at Oklaunion.

Everett remembered a drought that started in 2010 and lasted for the better part of five years that challenged every part of the power plant.

“You can’t run a power plant without water,” she said. “We tried everything to conserve water. We looked at cloud seeding, exploratory wells. All the employees had so many great ideas. I’ll definitely miss the people and the excitement of the plant.”

Oklaunion won many awards during its service. Power Industry Division, POWID, named the plant the most technologically advanced plant in the nation in 1994. Once the flagship of WTU’s fleet, Oklaunion became part of American Electric Power in 2000 when AEP completed the merger with Central and South West.

Working at Oklaunion instilled values in its team members that have lasted for decades and made the power plant fertile ground for developing talent.

“Oklaunion had a great culture from the first day. We were a group that it didn’t matter what they asked us to do we just did it,” said Steve Lewis, plant manager. “The culture here has benefitted other places. People who started here are working all over at other AEP sites. It’s more like family than any place I’ve ever been.”

“I learned to tell them all the news no matter if it is good or bad,” McMahon said. “Don’t sugar coat it or hide it. If you tell them the news they will step up and help you, and find the solution.”

Oklaunion teams worked through brownouts, terrible heat and even a tornado. Maybe because it is in Texas, Lewis vividly recalled winter shifts made worse due to high winds. He once had to load limestone with a backhoe because an auger stopped working in the freezing conditions.

“It was so cold I could hardly walk I had so many clothes on,” Lewis said.

So many fond memories, and work overcoming obstacles and challenges, endeared Oklaunion to its people and its community.

“We’ve had a long run,” Lewis said. “It still looks like it could go another 30 years, and I wish it could. I’ve enjoyed my time here.”

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