Photo courtesy of the US State Department
Covid 19 5e6ac4f236078

Utility Readiness During Pandemic: Keeping the Lights on Despite COVID-19

March 12, 2020
In the utility industry, providers of electric service are now asking themselves how to ensure service as a pandemic unfolds.

Coronavirus disease, also known as Covid-19, is a viral respiratory illness first detected in Wuhan, China. Symptoms of the disease include shortness of breath, cough and fever. According to the Centers for Disease Control, the virus is believed to spread via droplet when infected people sneeze or cough.

The World Health Organization declared Covid-19 a worldwide pandemic Wednesday, meaning there is concern the illness has potential to spread over a wide geographic area.

The U.S. government has issued several travel advisories. Entry to the country is suspended for most foreign nationals who have been in certain European countries, China and Iran at any point during the past 2 weeks prior to their scheduled arrival in the U.S.

Some people returning to the U.S. may be directed to undergo health screenings and answer questions at select airports equipped to perform screenings and quarantines.

Older people and those with immunity issues are being asked to avoid risky situations such as crowded areas and non-essential travel. People who may be ill are advised to avoid air travel to limit exposing others to the virus.

Many workplaces are instituting “social distancing” by canceling meetings with large numbers of people, or allowing employees to work from home.

In the utility industry, providers of electric service are now asking themselves how to ensure service as a pandemic unfolds.

According to the Edison Electric Institute, planning for a pandemic is different from other natural disasters because the disaster is not geographically confined, and may go on for a long period of time before an all-clear is issued.

The Department of Homeland Security has listed power plants, dams, nuclear reactors, communications and transportation systems as critical infrastructure, putting power utilities in charge of an important part of pandemic response.  

During a pandemic, large numbers of employees – as high as 40 percent – might be unable to work, according to EEI. Supply chain problems could also arise, with vendors and suppliers unable to complete orders.

Utilities must focus on maintaining their own critical infrastructure: Key personnel like power plant operators, call center reps and line workers. It could be necessary to use contractors, mutual assistance and other companies to help keep the lights on during a pandemic, according to EEI.

Before the outbreak of disease, EEI encourages utilities to review its readiness status, conduct training, monitor the situation and emphasize good personal hygiene to all employees. Keeping a two-week supply of food, water, medicine and toiletries available is good planning.

Employees need to feel confident their workplace is a healthy environment, and know when they’re expected to stay home and when to come to work, according to EEI.

During a pandemic, electric companies will put their plans into action and help keep their employees and families safe. Depending on the severity of the outbreak, utilities may implement strategies to prevent the spread of the virus by canceling large meetings, curtailing non-essential travel and implementing work-from-home policies where possible.

To maintain operations and support infrastructure, utilities must identify essential functions and workers needed to fill essential positions. This means also identifying what functions of normal operations can be safely canceled for the duration of the outbreak.

EEI cautions utilities to remain particularly vigilant with physical security during an outbreak, watching for malicious actors who might capitalize on the disruption in normal operations.

When the pandemic has passed, electric utilities can resume normal business and notify employees when it is safe to return to work in person. EEI recommends reviewing the response plan and identify areas of potential improvement to be better prepared for future emergencies.

According to the Electricity Subsector Coordinating Council, if there are no confirmed cases of coronavirus within the service territory, utilities should consider the following actions:

  • Increase hygiene measures
  • Plan for employees to telecommute to work
  • Have shelter in place plans for critical facilities
  • Stockpile crucial materials, including food, personal protective gear, etc.
  • Halt foreign travel
  • Increase communication within the company and community

If employees do contract the coronavirus, utilities should be prepared to consider:

  • Instituting domestic travel restrictions, as well as international
  • Planning for facility decontamination and remediation
  • Maintaining internal and external communications

To support these security measures, the ESCC also advises utilities to learn what kind of IT capacity will be needed to allow employees to work from home. For example, will people need VPN access, how many logins can happen at once, do employees need to be issued equipment like laptops or tablets?

The ESCC also encourages facility managers with electric utilities to audit their daily cleaning requirements. Find out how often are certain facilities or vehicles cleaned. Also, decide how large a group can be before it becomes an infection risk.

For employee health and wellness, prevention guidelines and testing information must be supplied to workers. Have a system in place to test potentially sickened workers before permitting them to return to work. Determine how the organization can identify and inform people who may have been exposed to an infected person.

To support continued power grid reliability and mutual aid networks, the ESCC cautions utilities to identify whether decisions to change operations at key accounts will impact load balancing.

Utilities should also determine which facilities critical to the power grid have made shelter-in-place plans that include on-site food, personal protective equipment, water, hygiene, medical, family services, etc.

It is also important to keep in contact with mutual assistance networks, as in other kinds of natural disasters, to assess resource availability if there are not enough workers to do the work.

About the Author

Jeff Postelwait | Senior Editor

Jeff Postelwait is a writer and editor with a background in newspapers and online editing who has been writing about the electric utility industry since 2008. Jeff is senior editor for T&D World magazine and sits on the advisory board of the T&D World Conference and Exhibition. Utility Products, Power Engineering, Powergrid International and Electric Light & Power are some of the other publications in which Jeff's work has been featured. Jeff received his degree in journalism news editing from Oklahoma State University and currently operates out of Oregon.

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