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Resilience Is Not Just a Buzzword

April 27, 2020
Electricity is the foundation for continuity during the COVID-19 pandemic.

With everything going on in our world lately, it is no wonder we have had widespread power outages. Well, umm, no! Made you look!

The impact of power outages can range from minor inconveniences to disastrous, even during the best of times. I recently heard someone say that electricity was the foundation for continuity during the COVID-19 pandemic. I liked that and think it is true. Thankfully, we have not seen many power interruptions in headlines in our new, crazy world.

Humor me for just a minute and try to imagine our modern society without a reliable power grid. It just does not work. Our increasingly connected and digitized society almost entirely depends on the electric grid. Lack of reliable power is one of the drivers of global inequality, and we simply would be unable to have an industrious society or a thriving economy without it.

I’m Sexy & I Know It

Much to my annoyance, my kids do not think electricity is a sexy subject. Can you believe that?! At one point, they also were under the impression that a lineman’s rodeo involved football players. But I digress. To appeal to their relatively privileged interests, I have learned to reframe my description of the electric grid. I now describe the grid as the ultimate “app,” which powers and enables all the other modern technologies of which they have come to depend. In their view, a life without laptops, iPhones, and YouTube would most certainly be disastrous.

I have also observed that because they have always had advanced technology, they have little tolerance for glitches or failures. Today’s consumers have incredibly high expectations for technology to be intuitive, reliable, and even self-healing. Even if electricity “is not their thing,” they have the same high expectations of their electric utility. My kids really couldn’t have survived walking to school 20 miles uphill both ways, with nothing but a Nokia cell phone, Napster and dial-up internet.

And, while I joke about their complete lack of interest and simultaneously high expectations of the electric grid, I also know they are not outliers. In a way, the electric industry is a victim of its own success. In first-world countries, our power companies do such a good job; losing power for an extended period just is not a worry for most people. Phrased differently, no one notices when our industry is doing a good job.

A Special Issue

This month, I am pleased to share what has evolved into a special issue of T&D World. During the COVID-19 pandemic, our utility partners have been appropriately tending to their primary mission of keeping the lights on. Thus, after a moment of panic and perhaps an exercise in our own resilience, I changed the format of this month’s issue to not distract our partners away from that mission. This issue will focus on the timely topic of grid resiliency, with a special section written by our editors about how the COVID-19 pandemic is affecting the power industry. T&D World also strives to be one of the few media publications focused on the positive during these challenging times. For these reasons, in this issue we also endeavor to honor the unsung heroes in the electric utility industry who make it all happen.

While this has been an enjoyable issue for our staff to put together, it has also been challenging because the COVID-19 pandemic continues to evolve every day. The logistics of publishing a print magazine require that we often prepare issues a month or two in advance. Our editors have worked hard to bring you the most relevant and up-to-date information in this month’s print issue. Also keep in mind that we are continually updating our website with the most up-to-date information about COVID-19 and other important matters affecting the electric power industry. Please check out our website at

N+1 Is a Way of Life

Contingency planning is a way of life in the electric utility industry. The overall approach to electric system design and operations is one of reliability, redundancy, and resilience. In the ordinary course of business, electric companies plan for and even have tabletop exercises to address a multitude of potential disasters.

Utilities routinely work through these worst-case scenarios in partnership with a variety of national, state, and local government agencies, task forces, and industry organizations. This disaster response planning includes both man-made and naturally occurring disasters caused by things like an electromagnetic pulse, terrorists, cyberattacks, earthquakes, fire, floods, storms, and more. And, yes, even pandemics. The industry has become impressively good at all the logistics associated with restoring service during widespread power outages and has a robust mutual assistance network.

At the top of mind, utilities in the United States have worked through a multitude of challenges just within in the past few months including California utilities filing wildfire mitigation plans, the spring storm season, the Tennessee Valley Authority has repaired damage to its transmission infrastructure from more than one tornado, and there was even a rare 5.7 earthquake in Salt Lake City.

Impressively, utilities have managed to not only address these challenges, but also implement their emergency pandemic plans concurrently. Keeping the lights on during a pandemic is undoubtedly a new challenge, but one that I know our industry can handle.

I’m proud that this issue of T&D World highlights many of these industry accomplishments. There is even a pretty cool article in this issue about how utilities have been proactively inspecting equipment surrounding healthcare facilities and supporting the power needs of new overflow hospital facilities.

The Impact of COVID-19 on the Grid

The terms reliability and resilience are often used interchangeably; however, they do have different meanings. Reliability is having electricity available when you turn on the switch. You must first have reliability before you can have resilience. We have a more reliable grid now than ever. Resilience is the ability of the grid to withstand and recover from these various man-made or nature-made incidents.

COVID-19 has forced the industry to reconsider logistics related to its workforce, office locations, employee health and safety, technology, operations, supply chains, consumer affordability, and more. Most non-essential utility workers are now working remotely. The logistics associated with enabling a large utility workforce to work remotely almost overnight is certainly no small feat. It is especially challenging to do in a manner that also maintains network and critical infrastructure security.

Utilities have also implemented protocols for testing and temperature screenings before workers can enter a utility building. In recognizing the essential nature of providing electric service, some critical staff are sheltering in place at control centers. Some are even volunteering to stay at work and away from their families for weeks at a time. These employees have transformed business offices into private sleeping areas, and utilities have had to buy some supplies in bulk, like food and cots. Utilities have also launched media campaigns asking that customers keep their distance from workers that must still be out working in the field.

In the United States and other European countries, some of the other impacts of COVID-19 on the electric grid include changes to demand curves.

Due to the lockdowns, we have generally seen decreased usage by commercial and industrial customers and some increased usage from the residential class. Demand curves have changed as well, with morning peaks now occurring later and overall peak usage declining. These changes in demand have caused changes in the price of energy in the wholesale markets and, in some cases, changed the types of generation resources deployed.

Unfortunately, reliability and resiliency are not the stories coming out of countries like Nigeria, where electric demand exceeds the supply. Here, distribution companies manage their daily energy quota from the central power grid by rationing across the different sectors. Due to recent increases in the residential load, further energy rationing of non-critical sectors may be necessary, to prevent adverse effects on the health care system.

Look To the Helpers, But Watch for the Scammers

The silver lining we often see during disasters is that many people are willing to help those in need. Utilities all over the country have remained committed to their communities by suspending customer disconnections and donating items like face masks, personal protective equipment (PPE), food, and funds to help those in need. I have been very impressed by these acts of generosity. T&D World has been covering many instances of utility employees going above and beyond to help their communities. Unfortunately, during disasters, we also often see bad actors looking to take advantage of those in a terrible situation. The COVID-19 pandemic is no different. The electric utility industry has also seen an increase of those trying to exploit the vulnerabilities of a now sizeable remote workforce via attempted cybersecurity attacks and phishing scams.

Nothing Short of Impressive

I’m sure we will all come out of this pandemic with lessons learned. It is who we are as an industry, and it is prudent. And, while we often talk about the engineering marvels of the electric grid, we must recognize that the real heroes in this situation are the utility employees. The utility industry has an amazingly talented and committed workforce who stands firm through all kinds of adverse situations. They approach their duty to keep the lights on as nothing short of a calling.

Utilities plan for the worst-case scenario; its workers run into disasters as others run away. They are their brother’s keeper, and their families sacrifice deeply to the benefit of us all. Their actions are nothing short of impressive, and it is no accident that we have not experienced widespread electric outages related to the COVID-19 pandemic. 

Until next time, please stay safe and healthy!

About the Author

Martha Davis | Senior Director of Content

Prior to working at T&D World and Utility Analytics Institute, Martha worked as an executive in the energy industry for about 15 years. She has held various regulatory and government affairs positions and had the opportunity to shape public policy.

Martha has a B.A. from Westminster College in Fulton, MO; completed specialized legal and public policy coursework at American University in Washington, D.C.; M.P.A. Public Affairs and M.B.A. Business Administration both from the University of Missouri. She is currently a doctoral candidate at the University of Denver where she is researching business analytics, innovation and regulation.

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