Electric Utilities – Preparing for the Summer of COVID-19
For electric utilities, the spring is typically a time of preparation for summer peak and storm season. Generating plants conduct maintenance and refueling outages, and the power delivery system is prepared for the inevitable stresses that hot weather, thunderstorms, and hurricanes can bring. COVID-19 is changing all that this year. While preparation for the summer months needs to continue, utilities must now do so in a manner that keeps employees and the public safe from exposure to COVID-19. This on its own will complicate springtime efforts. However, there are additional factors that electric utilities may want to consider as storm season nears.
Preparing for Storms…with or without Mutual Assistance
Utilities historically have relied on mutual assistance to restore power in natural disasters and wide-spread outages. The CEO-led Electricity Subsector Coordinating Council (ESCC) has issued guidelines to manage mutual assistance through this pandemic, which includes mutual assistance to ensure operational continuity for generating plants. However, a question that executives need to contemplate is whether mutual assistance will be available at all and, if so, under what conditions. In response to the pandemic, companies can develop proactive mutual assistance protocols with companies within their regions to increase the pool of mission-essential personnel, but these same regional partners will likely be impacted by the same weather events. As COVID-19 hotspots flare in different parts of the country, some utilities may opt not to send their staff. They may be unable to contribute crews due to the incidence of infection within their ranks. Utilities needing assistance may have key personnel unavailable to assist in onboarding visiting crews.
In preparing for storm season this year, utility executives may want to consider the following:
- Plan for contingencies within the incident command structure (ICS). As individuals are infected or quarantined, the ICS should have backups identified. Some individuals may require training to fulfill new roles. Reviewing these structures now and identifying additional staff to fill in may mitigate a later issue.
- Assume mutual assistance may be delayed or even unavailable. Utilities should consider scenarios in which they may need to perform the majority of the restoration with their own staff and contractors. Utilities in the same region may be impacted by the same event, but they may be able to provide assistance in specific instances. Opening these lines of communication well in advance of an event will facilitate real-time response.
- Put in place practices to enable the use of external crews. If mutual assistance resources are available, utilities will want to ensure that proper precautions are in place regarding work practices, staging, and logistics to protect both local and visiting crews from infection. Even qualified external parties may need additional training. The ESCC guidelines can be very helpful here.
- Ensure visibility to all qualified personnel and maximize access. Utilities should keep close track of all personnel qualified to fill mission-essential roles in power generation and delivery. This includes employees who have moved to non-essential roles. Recent retirees should also be tracked and considered, as the ongoing pandemic constrains the availability of personnel. It will be very important to work with unions and trade organizations as early as possible to ensure staff with the right skills can move as quickly as possible to the mission-essential jobs when and where they are needed.
- Proactively communicate with local and state government and regulators. Municipalities and state governments will be keenly focused on utility response under pandemic conditions. A coordinated outreach to representatives from local and state governments to identify risks to restoration and emergency response through the pandemic may help manage expectations. Utilities may want to meet with their regulators to walk through areas where restoration could be challenged. Nuclear operators, that have minimum-staffing requirements, must be aware of avenues to get regulatory relief from these requirements, if applicable.
- Rethink planned outage work to only focus on urgent or top-priority projects. Due to COVID-19 restrictions, many utilities are limiting planned construction or maintenance work to only what must be completed for urgent operational needs. Carrying a similar mentality into summer work planning may help ensure availability of needed staff to handle emergent work.
- Update the standardized voice, text messaging, and social media communications ahead of time. Outgoing messages used to communicate outage notification, restoration status, and expected restoration completion times may need additional information related to the interactions between customers and the field crews restoring service. Thinking about such changes ahead of time will support timely communication of information if the need arises.
- Prepare restoration plans including teams that do not have contact with one another. Damage assessment teams, storm restoration crews, and other storm restoration personnel may require strict organization by shifts and geographic location to ensure limited contact with each other. Organizing into shift teams in this manner provides a level of resource redundancy needed within an area if contact is made with someone with COVID-19.
- Frequently reassess load forecasts and the implications for the generation fleet and the grid. Utilities that are closely managing mission-essential staff for generation may have elected to leave generation units in extended or planned outages or to safely shut down units that are not committed for dispatch or reserve margins. These decisions may need to be revisited based on anticipated electric demand. Load profiles may be very different from normal across the transmission and distribution system, and as such, work to prepare for summer may need to be sequenced differently. Loads will be significantly impacted by the pace and sequence of the economy coming back online.
For smaller utilities, particularly some municipals and cooperatives, these questions may be more urgent as their reliance on mutual assistance may be greater than their larger peers.
Preparing Major Customers
Due to the uneven impact of this pandemic on commercial and industrial customers, working with those entities to prepare for the summer season may be different from previous years. Some large commercial customers may be shuttered and looking to restart operations as shelter-in-place orders are rescinded. Others, such as shipping and grocery stores, may be seeing extraordinary demand. Hospitals are critical in all circumstances, but they may need even greater focus in terms of redundancy and backup generation.
Utilities may want to:
- Review and communicate with critical facilities and customers that may require special attention. Every utility has a list of critical facilities and customers that require specialized communication and/or restoration protocols necessary if a widespread outage occurs. Discussing storm restoration protocols and practices with such facilities (and customers) ahead of storm season may provide additional insights needed for restoring service through COVID-19.
- Revisit redundancy and backup generation for critical facilities. Hospitals and other healthcare organizations have become even more critical than before. As summer peak and storm season approaches, working with these customers to ensure that dual feeds are operational and that backup generation is tested and ready will help prepare both the utility and the customer for an event. To the extent that critical personnel at the utility or the customer site are unavailable, it will be important to ensure backups are identified.
- Proactively engage large customers to understand current (and anticipated) demand. While metering data can give an indication of the load at a given customer, reaching out to these organizations in the midst of this crisis may provide an indication of their expectations in terms of coming back online, anticipated loads, etc.
- Confirm demand response commitments. Some large customers may already have reduced their load due to a reduction or halt in operations and therefore may not be able to provide additional load relief during a peak period or contingency. Also, some essential, but non-critical, facilities experiencing significant demand (shipping facilities, grocery stores, big box retailers, etc.) may be less inclined to participate in demand response. Utility demand management organizations should engage with large customers and aggregators to understand the realistic demand reduction capacity available this summer.
- Consider energy efficiency offerings that may be beneficial. Many organizations are or will be financially distressed in the months to come. Identifying products that may help manage energy costs through this period could be beneficial to them.
COVID-19 has introduced a level of complexity in operations that the industry has never seen before. Utilities will benefit from scenario planning that identifies potential risks and the need for either “no regrets” or mitigating activities. Frequent communication with state and local officials, regulators, and customers is always a good idea, and in these uncertain times, it is critical.
ScottMadden works with utilities across North America to help solve their most pressing problems, and COVID-19 is no exception. We have deep expertise in utility operations. We would be happy to speak with you about planning and executing the scenarios you are facing.
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