With hurricane season on the horizon, electric utilities are gearing up and preparing to reach out to each other for help when recovering from potential storm events. While weather-related destruction can occur year-round, hurricanes pose a particular threat in coastal areas. One storm in particular—Sandy—prompted major upgrades in the way utilities organize emergency-recovery efforts. This season, however, comes with new questions related to the novel coronavirus pandemic and the impact it could have on utilities’ ability to respond to a neighboring community in need.
Electric utilities have recognized the vulnerability of their systems to weather events ever since wires were first hung from poles. Over the years, we’ve become accustomed to seeing news coverage showing caravans of utility trucks traveling toward storm-affected areas, sometimes even before a storm has hit. While these efforts—called “mutual assistance” programs by investor-owned utilities and “mutual aid” programs by municipal utilities and rural electric cooperatives—were once somewhat informal, the enormous damage caused by 2012’s Hurricane Sandy proved the need for a more robust approach to recovery planning.
Edison Electric Institute (EEI) oversees the mutual assistance logistics of investor-owned utilities. It was this group that has seen the most changes in the wake of Hurricane Sandy. Utility response was certainly heroic during that restoration process, which involved 80 companies from almost every state and Canada.
At that time, however, there was no national framework for managing utility participation. Instead, needs were met through a larger number of Regional Mutual Assistance Groups (RMAG). In the Northeast, especially, these groups were too small to effectively coordinate resources within their borders. The three RMAGs have since been combined into one, reducing the national total to seven regions from nine. And guidelines have been developed for responding to recovery needs resulting from disasters that span regional borders, now called National Response Events.
Rural electric cooperatives, organized under the National Rural Electric Cooperative Association (NRECA), are less formally managed, though no less dedicated to the idea of mutual aid, according to Martha Duggan, NRECA’s senior director for regulatory affairs.
“In terms of the regional approach, I would describe our program as being more fluid than EEIs or APPAs,” she said, referring to the American Public Power Association, the trade group representing municipal electric utilities. Co-ops helping each other in times of trouble has been a part of how these organizations have operated for decades.
“The concern is really baked into the operations of any co-op,” she said. “Frankly, ever since the creation of electric cooperatives in the 1930s and 1940s, we’ve had this program in some form. The expectation is that all electric co-ops stand ready to send crews and other resources. If you’re an electric co-op and you need help, you get help.”
NRECA’s member co-ops are grouped into 10 regions, in a plan that maps to regions established by the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA).
“When we have a mutual aid event, pretty much all the state coordinators jump on the lines. If it’s a disaster handled within a state, then the statewide coordinator handles the event,” Duggan said.
Duggan pointed to mutual-aid efforts in the wake of Hurricane Michael in October 2018 as an example of the way co-ops support each other. The storm took down lines and poles in seven states along the southeastern U.S. coast. Crews from more than a dozen states—including states that sustained their own damage—helped restore power to effected co-op members.
“The response was really terrific,” Duggan said, noting the challenges the Category 5 storm created for responders. “The size of it, and the fact it was the second or third or fourth event in the  season. We had electric co-ops in Florida that were completely wiped out and had a lot of assistance.”
APPA’s mutual aid program is similarly organized into 10 FEMA-based regions. And, like EEI’s plans, APPA’s efforts had a redesign following hurricanes Katrina and Sandy. Those storms each had months-long recovery periods that required cooperation between federal, state and local organizations. Since then, APPA, EEI and NRECA have developed ongoing planning and preparedness efforts and meet regularly with FEMA in war-game-style meetings to troubleshoot potential logjams before they occur during a real emergency.
Participating utilities from all three organizations have to have their own backup plans in place to meet these contingencies. These can include lodging plans, as well as contracts with caterers and laundry services to support other utilities’ lineworkers during an event. This kind of organization aided efforts to bring power back to Shelby, Ohio, when it was hit by a tornado on Sunday, April 14, 2019. Approximately 60% of the community’s 5,000 customers were knocked offline by the F2 tornado, including about 20 industrial facilities.
By 7 a.m. Monday, crews from 15 public power utilities, all members of American Municipal Power Inc., were on the job. These visiting crews set 30 new poles, reinstalled numerous spans of three-phase primary line, and brought a substation back online. By the end of Tuesday, all the power that could be restored was back up and running.
Utilities and their trade organizations now are working to understand how such mutual aid efforts might be called on during the coronavirus pandemic. The virus adds a layer of complication for planners attempting to game out the situations to which they might have to respond.
“What if an electric co-op has heavy impact of the virus—what’s going to be the response to that? That’s more complicated than getting in a pickup truck and driving to storm-impacted areas,” Duggan said, noting one possible call that could go out to NRECA members.
The Electricity Subsector Coordinating Council (ESCC) has developed some guidelines for mutual assistance during the coronavirus outbreak. This group includes electric utility CEOs and other executives along with their trade association leaders. It serves as a liaison between utility operations and federal government officials from the White House, cabinet agencies, federal law enforcement and national security organizations. It even includes Canadian utility executives, due to the interconnected nature of the North American electricity grid.
In guidance issued in late March, the ESCC noted that mutual assistance could become unavailable or be severely limited during the pandemic. Additionally, some suppliers that utilities count on to aid restoration efforts could see their operations impacted by the virus, through employee illness or facility shutdowns.
ESCC’s mutual assistance guidelines suggest a number of specific changes to how crews often respond in their efforts to aid another utility’s recovery. These include limiting visiting crews to specific regions within the host utility’s territory to limit potential cross-pollination of the virus, and to limit interactions between host and visiting utility crew members. Pre-event staging—sending crews down before a hurricane hits for example—should be limited unless a threat is imminent. ESCC also suggests, multiple, smaller staging sites are better than large, centralized approaches because they help limit exposure between crews.
Finally, the ESCC advice also suggests utilities might be requested to provide assistance in situations beyond typical disaster scenarios while the virus is active. There is the possibility, the group suggests, that such aid could be required “if a host organization is so impacted by COVID-19 cases that it is not able to conduct normal daily operations without assistance.