We’re used to lineworkers being the face of electric utilities. These employees are out there keeping the power on, and they’re also on the front lines of restoration efforts to turn the lights back on in communities hit by natural disasters. Behind the scenes, however, are system operators at the utility and regional levels that are every bit as vital to keeping kilowatts flowing through transmission and distribution system wires. The novel coronavirus pandemic has forced a number of these organizations to open emergency-operation playbooks they’ve previously only used in hypothetical war-game-style exercises.
Planning for a pandemic has been part of utility preparedness efforts since at least 2007 when executive representatives from seven leading investor-owned utilities came together for a roundtable on the issue. Held in the wake of the 2006 H5N1 avian flu outbreak, the event resulted in a report, “The Microbiological Threat to the National Power Grid,” which outlined the enormous implications utilities need to consider as they plan for continuing operations during a worldwide disease outbreak.
The report’s authors offered highly accurate predictions of what an event similar to the 1918–20 Spanish flu epidemic might look like today, including:
- A rapid global spread of three to six weeks
- National border closings that are ineffectual in a time of frequent intercontinental travel
- Economic shock waves, such as stock market devaluation, that precede the worst of the public health difficulties
- 24/7 cable news outlets spreading rumors and fear (the report was written before the widespread use of social networks)
- Leaders, managers and employees dropping from the workforce due to their own or their family’s illness
- A lack of doctors, nurses, hospital beds—or even gloves and masks
Around the same time, the North American Electric Reliability Council developed its “Electricity Sector Influenza Pandemic Planning, Preparation and Response Reference.” That guide, in the form of a number of checklists and activities utilities should take, remains in use today.
The Electricity Sector Coordinating Council (ESCC) is the lead liaison agency between utility operations and the federal government. ESCC’s members are the CEOs of major utilities and are involved in planning for any major event that has the potential to disrupt grid operations. According to a March 11, 2020, press release, the group is holding twice-a-week calls with senior leaders of the departments of Energy, Homeland Security, and Health and Human Services; the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention; and the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission. On March 10, the ESCC released a resource guide for utilities, specifically addressing planning needs for this outbreak.
According to the Edison Electric Institute, the trade organization for investor-owned utilities, utilities need to be ready to see up to 40% of employees out sick, quarantined or staying at home to care for family members. Similarly, their vendors and suppliers could be facing similar labor shortages.
According to the ESCC’s resource guide, once employees begin getting sick, utilities should begin to consider requiring essential employees of critical facilities—such as utility control centers—to shelter in place at those locations.
That’s exactly what the New York Independent System Operator (NYISO), the regional system operator for the state of New York, decided to do with a number of its control-room operators in late March. On March 26, four operator teams, along with catering staff to keep them fed, were moved into trailers at NYISO’s main control site in Rensselaer, N.Y., and a backup facility in Guilderland, N.Y. Other regional operators have made moves to isolate control room workers while they’re on the job, including using dedicated entrance and exit doors so workers remain physically distant at shift changes. Some also are alternating operations between main control centers and backup centers every 12 hours, which allows for thorough cleanings between shifts.
The moves to protect ongoing grid operations are going into place as utilities around the globe are seeing a downturn in demand as regions go into lockdown mode. The Electric Power Research Institute released a report in late March covering demand figures in some of the areas hit earliest by the novel coronavirus. Italy, for example, saw a drop of 10–21% in peak demand and energy use, compared to 2019 data. Researchers theorize this large drop is due to the high percentage of industrial load going offline on the Italian grid.
On March 25, 2020, New York and California saw 3–7% reductions in peak demand and energy use over figures from the previous two weeks. It seems working from home leads to slower morning load growth, as well, according to a NYISO statement.
“We have observed a later and more gradual morning ramping period,” leading to 6–9% lower demand between 6 a.m. and 10 a.m., the organization said. “Traditionally, we see a rapid increase in demand during this period as homes and business begin daily activities.”