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New York grid operators volunteer to sequester from outside world

NYISO
New York grid operators at work.Credit: NYISO

TheNew York Independent System Operator (NYISO) has had a Pandemic Response plan in place for more than 20 years but thankfully, it has never had to use it. Until now.

Last week senior leadership at NYISO determined that additional steps would be needed to protect essential NYISO employees and ensure grid reliability during the COVID-19 (coronavirus) pandemic.

In response to that determination, a 37-person team voluntarily entered into its sequestration program. This program means isolation from their friends and family at two ISO offices: the main office outside of Albany, NY and a backup site about 15 miles away.

The workers live in separate trailers on the property and work 12-hour shifts each day.

The goal, of course, is to keep power on in New York. Operators are on the front lines making sure that the power generated meets demand to keep energy transmission in balance. Seven operators work per shift, monitoring digital displays and directing power generators and distributers to keep the transmission balanced. When a shift is finished, a maintenance worker (also sequestered) comes in to completely sterilize the Control Room before the next shift appears. Operators even have their own telephone handset, which they take with them when they leave the building.

“This is unparalleled in our history. We had a pandemic plan that we hoped we would never have to use. Then we started to see proliferation of the number of COVID-19 cases in the local area, and we felt it was a prudent step,” said Rich Dewey, President and CEO of NYISO.

The trailers are occupied by one or two people. A cook is also sequestered on the premises. Meals are individually wrapped for proper hygiene. There is also a trailer for showering and another for doing laundry.

Operators brought items for exercise and entertainment during off-hours and the trailers are equipped with TVs and Wi-Fi. All outside items were thoroughly disinfected beforehand.

Shifts are staggered to minimize cross-contamination and operators were tested for COVID-19 before entering. The workers practice safe hygiene, social distancing and have their temperature checked twice a day.

About half of the operators came from the Navy, where many ran nuclear plants to power aircraft carriers or submarines, so this lifestyle is not new to them.

Operators stay in touch with loved ones through phone, text or video communication. This allows for individuals to spend time remotely with their families.

Alex Linkem, a generator operator and 10-year Navy vet, uses this time to play online computer games with his family. He states that he has received a lot of support from his family, who recognize the importance of what he and his fellow operators are doing.

Tim Pasquini, a generator operator, says that “It’s a pretty important job to get done. This whole quarantine and ‘shelter-in-place’ … it would be a lot less successful if people didn’t have electricity.”

“We all understand why we’re here,” said Jon Sawyer, manager of Control Room Operations. “Everybody here knows the importance of what we do and the vital part that we play to make sure everyone can have power.”

The team is prepared to continue working as long as needed, keeping the lights on in New York State during this pandemic.