As hospitals fill, public places empty, markets contract and in-person events are canceled or rescheduled due to COVID-19, also known as the novel coronavirus, electric utilities still must keep the lights on. In fact, electricity is more important than ever before as more people telecommute from home, conduct meetings online and otherwise rely on data and electricity to get the job done.
David Roop, a recent retiree from Dominion Energy and a 43-year veteran of electric transmission operations, said utilities’ pandemic plans are designed to maintain a healthy workforce and ensure they are not endangering the health of their workers’ families.
“Initially, they require good hygiene when entering a facility and then as the threat worsens, they restrict travel – domestic and international. During this phase most will reduce the number allowed into a meeting and again request no physical contact. As it continues, they will restrict outside guest into their facilities or if outside guests are allowed they will be prescreened over where they have been over the last several weeks, their present health condition, etc.,” Roop wrote in an email to T&D World.
Eventually, Roop said, as has been the case in Virginia and several other states, when an emergency is announced, they will move to close offices and have personnel work and respond from home wherever possible. This is the “social distancing” that the Centers for Disease control recommended to curtail the spread of coronavirus-related illness, which spreads through infected droplets and close human contact.
“There are some areas in our operations that we must have personnel stay, such as our operating centers. These Centers will minimize the number that stay to a core and make provisions to have them stay at these facilities (shelter-in-place) for an extended period - if need arises. Others will be sent home and work from home so, if needed, another shift could come in to relieve the shelter-in-place shift,” Roop wrote.
Professional organizations questioned the continued efficacy of the utility mutual assistance network during the outbreak, with some saying it would be instrumental in the response to the crisis and others saying it could not safely be relied upon – at least not in the same way it usually is.
Roop said utilities will keep using mutual assistance, but will also have to change how it is used.
“(T)here will be some changes such as how they are staged – I would doubt they would not leverage this resource if needed. Utilities understand that medical centers, etc. will need service to operate and our culture is to support each other. We are lucky for the time of year that this pandemic is presenting itself,” Roop wrote.
Mike McFarland, Great River Energy’s director of enterprise risk management, said there will probably be a number of impacts upon the mutual assistance network as COVID-19 runs its course.
“There will be a desire to maintain social distancing during the provisioning of mutual aid; requiring procedures be developed to ensure this, including separation in lodging, increased coordination by phone rather than in person, increased use of personal protection equipment, stepped up sanitizing/cleaning and personal hygiene, and as is most likely anyway, travel by truck/auto rather than by air,” McFarland wrote in an email to T&D World.
Another consideration would be the availability of healthy and qualified workers, as the outbreak could strain resources at any given utility, preventing them from sending as many workers as they otherwise could, McFarland said.
In its pandemic recommendations to utilities, the Edison Electric Institute cautioned that utilities may see supply chain disruptions as vendors and suppliers might find themselves unable to complete orders due to equipment shortages or sickened employees.
McFarland said that while supply chain issues are likely to impact service, the industry has always done a good job prioritizing work orders and working mutually to ensure the most critical outages and issues are addressed in as timely a manner as possible.
“Great River Energy’s pandemic plan includes procedures to identify critical supplies and vendors, and as we continue to manage to that plan, we are continually assessing our highest priority needs to ensure we have the supplies and workforce to meet them,” McFarland said.
McFarland said his utility is on the “medium level” of its pandemic response, which means preparing for future escalations. The utility is buying cots, food, blankets and towels for facilities where utility workers may have to shelter in place. He added that other utilities are doing the same.
Utilities and grid operators are also paying attention to how load patterns may shift in the wake of changes in energy use due to COVID-19. For example, if a school district or university is no longer having classes in a utility’s service district, how might this change load profiles?
“This is a good question,” Roop said. “Given the mild weather, I doubt a tremendous change other than colleges, commercial and industrial load patterns as these industries become impacted by this. Data center load is fairly consistent so this will probably not change much.”
The Electricity Subsector Coordinating Council said utilities need to plan for select employees to telecommute to work where possible. Roop said this approach will work for many kinds of utility worker where systems have migrated to digital systems.
“The issue will be how easy the collaboration process will become for problem solving. From this event, the industry should learn a great deal on what works, what does not and what tools they should deploy if they have problems,” Roop wrote. “At first, it will not be as efficient since most employees are not used to working that way, but over time they will get the kinks worked out.”
Roop also identified several major impacts of COVID-19 upon the utility industry.
“I believe there will be several impacts from this event. Financial will be one impact, the global supply chain will need to be considered for all critical recovery processes, not just this type of event, to see if we are too single threaded on a particular region of the world, and finally I believe we will learn a great deal on remote offices for personnel to be able to leverage this better in the future,” Roop wrote.
He added that COVID-19 could help utilities review their other resiliency measures to see if there are common factors that need consideration and improvement based on the lessons learned from this event.
McFarland said the biggest impact of the coronavirus outbreak on utilities will be ongoing emphasis on disaster preparedness by the industry.
“Health officials are not sure about the extent to which this may become a seasonal virus; the industry will certainly have gained valuable experience, allowing for better, intensified responses in the future,” McFarland wrote. “Another consequence is likely to be an increase in the numbers of employees routinely engaged in working remotely, as this outbreak forces industry and employees to become proficient at doing so.”