Utilities and pandemic planning: How we keep the lights on when the unthinkable happens

“Electricity is a key component of the fabric of modern society””

–NERC’s March 2020 GridEx V report

Providing reliable power to customers and serving communities are a cornerstone to the functioning of electric companies. Whether it is inclement weather, cyber threat or a global pandemic, business continuity plans and response are essential for delivering on the promise to serve. Power industry leaders provide resiliency in such times through careful planning, preparation and response guidelines. With the current pandemic threat posed by COVID-19 the challenges are new and unprecedented (Fig.1). Unlike a natural disaster that generally affects a geographical area and has underlying forecasts, the footprint of a pandemic encompasses a wide, dispersed region making it more challenging.

Figure 1. Challenges and questions facing the industry

With a decline of 3.8% in the global energy demand in Q1-2020 compared to Q1-2019 generation resources have been impacted. Not only did the electric demand decrease but also the pattern of usage changed to match profiles observed over the weekends (Fig.2). As the situation evolves, demand recovery would be impacted by the length, nature and dispersion of lockdowns along with the speed of recovery.

Additionally, some of the reliability concerns include uncertainty in load demand forecasting, high operating voltages especially in areas with solar PV, light load conditions, reactive power balance, reverse power flow, and potential for outages as the weather transitions to the summer and storm season. Due to  lockdowns in the industrial sector, stay-at-home orders and dramatic reductions in vehicular traffic in addition to other reasons, CO2 emissions declined by 5% in Q1-2020 compared to Q1-2019; a decline that surpassed all previous years, according to NERC.

Figure 2. PJM average weekly load variation by year

The power industry is not immune to the economic impacts of reduced electricity demands, reliability and security risks, reduced bill payments, and delayed or reduced investment activities; smaller workforce, strained supply-chain and limited support services for an uncertain period create additional vulnerabilities . In its report, GridEx V pointed out that “an event of national implications could add additional “˜layers’ of complexity to the otherwise well-established procedures of emergency response.”  The impacts could be direct (affecting the workforce — sick/quarantined) or indirect (unavailability of contractors, vendors, suppliers).

When preparing for such situations, pre-pandemic planning, during-pandemic response and support, and finally post-pandemic rehabilitation and restoration are formulated and exercised (Fig.3), according to EEI’s Electric Companies and Pandemic Planning Report. Control centers may have been exposed to some of the most stringent measures since they continuously monitor the health and heartbeat of the system.

Figure 3. Stages of pandemic response

Stages of Pandemic Response Timeline

At the pre-pandemic stage, the electric companies monitor the situation closely while reviewing their business continuity plans, determining essential employees and tasks, reviewing policies, ascertaining personnel support in case of social distancing measures, providing widespread communications to the employees and encouraging personal preparedness and hygiene. While keeping this critical infrastructure intact is their duty, this is not possible without the health and wellbeing of the employees.

During the outbreak, pandemic plans are implemented to mitigate impact on business operations and its workforce. Goals focused on controlling and containing the spread of the infection are supported through social distancing, eliminating non-essential travel, implementing work-from-home policies and mandating adequate distance between employees deemed essential while maintaining proper sanitization protocols.  Companies also work to acquire additional supplies such as hand sanitizer and face makes through authentic supply chain channels.

 These measures are taken while remaining vigilant against malicious attacks not only on the physical and IT assets but also on the employees that may be targeted through phishing emails. As more and more employees use teleworking, already strained IT systems may become vulnerable to bad actors, thus requiring due diligence and discretion. During this time, open and transparent communications by the executives and their support are critical to the employees themselves.

The electric companies communicate with the government agencies and stakeholders to identify challenges and develop effective action plans. Successful implementation of such practices and procedures is enabled with all hands on deck and continued support and work engagement.

What does this mean for the future?

Once the worst of the pandemic is behind us, returning to business will be critical though challenging and anything but normal. This task cannot be accomplished by working in silos. It needs careful planning, continuous monitoring and coordination. Not only would this provide an opportunity to re-visit, discuss and improve such response for future but also help develop a camaraderie among the employees if exercised with care, caution, and compassion for the community. As we finally make our way through this all-consuming crisis, the unity and solidarity of the electric industry will bring forth guidance and lessons learned that will benefit all sectors and generations to follow.

It is evident that the lessons learned will usher a new wave of technology, innovation, flexibility, adaptation as we rethink how to best keep the lights on and play new roles in the lives of customers!

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Maigha received her Ph.D. in Electrical Engineering at Missouri University of Science and Technology, Rolla, MO in 2017 followed by a Post-Doctoral Research Fellow position at Clemson University Restoration Institute, Charleston, SC. She is currently serving as a Senior Engineer in the Relay and Protection Engineering department at Commonwealth Edison, Illinois, USA. In her current role she is working on developing simulation and analysis framework for assessing DER impacts on the distribution system. She is a member of IEEE-PES, Women in Engineering and IAS. Her research interests include DERs, smart inverters, EVs, microgrids, real-time simulations and hardware-in-loop testing.

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