Grid Modernization in the Time of COVID-19

The benefits of grid-modernizing investments and practices are shining, as utilities are being tested by the latest crisis. Understanding these benefits and how they support broader policy goals can help utilities develop investment plans and communicate them effectively to customers and regulators.

The COVID-19 pandemic is significantly impacting utilities, which provide a range of essential services. Electric utilities must balance their mandate to deliver safe, reliable, affordable electricity to all customers, while taking the appropriate precautions for their employees and customers. These challenges have been exacerbated for summer-peaking utilities that were in the final stages of preparing transmission and distribution (T&D) infrastructure for the summer heat stress on the system. Two primary effects have been seen to date:

  • COVID-19 precautions add operational complexity: Utilities must manage staff differently across their diverse work environments.
    • Maintaining social distance can be difficult for field operations accustomed to multi-person crews and in the confined, shift-based environment at generation sites or energy control centers.
    • In response, utilities have prioritized and scaled back field operations, leveraged backup resources, and sequestered key personnel.
  • Electricity demand is shifting: Utilities must ensure service remains reliable and resilient, while facing dramatic changes in the load curve.
    • As overall load is currently reduced, the shifts in demand may cause localized issues. The stress on residential-heavy T&D systems has increased due to corporate work-from-home policies, and critical facilities, such as hospitals and testing centers, may require additional or backup support.
    • In response, utilities are reconsidering outage plans and forecasts, and they are focusing on ensuring plants are brought online prior to June 1.

Adapting to new constraints has been easier for those utilities further along the grid modernization maturity curve. Generally, grid modernization technologies have benefitted utilities during this crisis by minimizing the need for physical contact through automation and operational flexibility.

Examples of how prior grid investments in foundational systems and infrastructure are paying off during the COVID-19 crisis include:

  • Advanced distribution management systems (ADMS) managing SCADA-enabled switching provides automation and remote control, reducing the need to deploy field personnel. This minimizes contact among field crews and with the public and reduces the risk of infection.
  • Advanced metering infrastructure (AMI) minimizes the need for traditional field deployment to disconnect services or read meters. While disconnections and meter reading have been temporarily suspended by most utilities, a protracted event would likely see at least a portion of this work resume.
  • Fully redundant, hot-standby control rooms originally constructed to improve resiliency are now being used to mitigate the risk of spreading the virus among specialized labor resources by splitting operator staffs into separate groups.
  • Enhanced customer engagement that leverages digital channels (e.g., app notifications, social media) allows utilities to share targeted, contactless messages directly to customers. IT/OT integration further enhances this by automating customer messages that are triggered by field work.
  • Asset health monitoring and data analytics allow utilities to understand which assets are most critical and inform utilities’ work prioritization, as they scale back field work to the most essential projects.
  • Energy storage resources help balance load by providing backup energy supply for critical facilities.

The lasting impacts of this pandemic will influence how utilities and regulators view grid modernization investments in the future. Utilities with these investments already in place are comparatively well-positioned, and it is important these benefits are communicated across the industry to share lessons learned. Importantly, those benefits can augment the operational savings typically presented in business cases for these programs.

Ongoing economic challenges will place a premium on grid-modernizing investments that complement existing plans to repair or replace aging, obsolete infrastructure. This approach will allow utilities to make cost-effective progress, while honoring their obligation to provide affordable service during the economic recovery. The first step is to proactively engage with regulators and stakeholders by sharing a vision for the future grid and the capabilities needed to achieve that vision. Flexibility and resiliency benefits of grid investments realized through the COVID-19 pandemic may be part of that vision.

Learn more about how to develop and communicate your grid modernization investment plan by reading our grid modernization roadmap product here.

About ScottMadden’s Energy Practice

We know energy from the ground up. Since 1983, we have served as energy consultants for hundreds of utilities, large and small, including all of the top 20. We focus on Transmission & Distribution, the Grid Edge, Generation, Energy Markets, Rates & Regulation, Enterprise Sustainability, and Corporate Services. Our broad, deep utility expertise is not theoretical—it is experience based. We have helped our clients develop and implement strategies, improve critical operations, reorganize departments and entire companies, and implement myriad initiatives.

About ScottMadden, Inc.

ScottMadden is the management consulting firm that does what it takes to get it done right. We consult in two main areas—Energy and Corporate & Shared Services. We deliver a broad array of consulting services ranging from strategic planning through implementation across many industries, business units, and functions. To learn more, visit www.scottmadden.com | Twitter | Facebook | LinkedIn.

About the Authors

Chris Sturgill is a director with ScottMadden and Buck Hagood is a manager.

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Contributing Authors

Chris Sturgill Director
Buck Hagood Manager

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