On 1 May 2020, the IEEE Power & Energy Society (PES) published a white paper titled “Sharing Knowledge on Electrical Energy Industry’s First Response to COVID-19,” sharing inputs, experiences and best practices from utilities and system operators across the globe who have been facing the challenges brought on by the pandemic. The following is the second in a three-part series from some of the authors of the paper, reflecting on key takeaways, trends and observations from its findings from a U.S. point of view.
Reliable, resilient and cost-effective delivery of electrical energy is necessary for society to cope with any crisis, and the world’s power utilities are meeting expectations. The IEEE Power & Energy Society’s (PES) global collaboration and knowledge sharing shows power has continued to flow without major disruptions even as the COVID-19 pandemic spread globally.
The pandemic primarily impacted power utilities in terms of personnel and operations, which makes sense, as a respiratory virus is by nature unlikely to impact grid technology. Let’s look at a snapshot of how utilities in the United States managed to maintain service from data we gathered in April, as events unfolded. Readers may access the full report, “Sharing Knowledge on Electrical Energy Industry’s First Response to COVID-19” to learn more.
All U.S. power utilities maintain and regularly update contingency plans for a variety of scenarios, including pandemics, so they are perennially preparing for potentially disruptive events. The onset of the pandemic confirmed the wisdom and responsibility of this approach.
Most, if not all, contingency plans rightly place initial focus on the personnel staffing their control centers, which are the critical operational hubs. Utilities often staff dual control centers for redundancy, should one suddenly go offline. Control room staff were the first to get initially rare personal protective equipment (PPE), and control centers rapidly upgraded their cleaning protocols to hospital standards.
In extreme cases in the hard-hit metro areas in the Northeast, at least two utilities turned to sequestration, physically quarantining their control center staffs to ensure reliable service. Others impressed upon their employees the importance of maintaining discipline on social distancing and the use of PPE at home, work and travel to and from work. Sequestration is a measure of last resort, and the factual scenarios never reached such a point at many utilities.
Office workers—up to 70 percent of a utility’s workforce—were quickly equipped to work remotely from home. The shift to remote work environments placed pressure on IT departments, which often split into teams to ensure uninterrupted support to the enterprise. IT departments also detected and had to mitigate an upswing in cybersecurity attacks on teleworking infrastructure, such as teleconferencing applications, and an increase in phishing and malware distribution using COVID-19 subject lines as a lure.
Field crews typically include multiple personnel for safety and task-related purposes. The pandemic forced worker health screening and social distancing that meant one worker per vehicle or per bucket, which also required some utilities to lease more vehicles. Utilities also reported carefully reviewing their field priorities, in some cases deferring less urgent work.
Mutual aid between utilities is a critical method of making field crews, equipment and spare parts available to any utilities hit hard by disaster, which typically is weather-related. U.S. utilities in April reviewed or developed plans to test and deploy potentially sequestered crews as hurricane season approached in the Southeast, and with the wildfire season in the West close behind.
Operationally, a widespread cessation of commercial and industrial (C&I) activity, coupled with a similarly widespread shift to working from home, produced several effects. Some utilities experienced shifts in load from C&I to residential, with an associated shift in peak, so that April weekdays began looking more like typical weekends. Load shapes changed as stay-at-home orders were implemented across the United States, leading to a variety of changes depending on the customer mix and weather patterns in each service territory.
In some energy markets, a decrease in demand effectively increased the renewable resource percentage share of some electric power systems, leading to an increase in the curtailment of renewable generation.
In terms of supply chain, our report documented impacts to manufacturing, transportation and warehousing of critical components and spare parts, but in our April reporting window, utilities were managing these challenges quite well.
One very important insight we gleaned was that the widespread societal shutdowns and pause in public and personal transportation temporarily and literally cleared the air; carbon emissions were down significantly. This effect provided a stark illustration of the impact electrification of transportation could have on air pollution and decarbonization efforts.
The overall value of the COVID-19 report lies in its coming together in such a short time frame, and its documentation of the global diversity of impacts and emerging practices. We also saw a level of consensus among utilities that gave us all a measure of confidence that many of us were seeing similar impacts and were responding in similar ways.
An aspect of the situation not explicitly documented in our report can be read between the lines: the investments many utilities have made in adding “smarts” to the grid have paid off in a pandemic. Advanced metering infrastructure automatically provides rapid and precise locations for nested outages. Distribution automation and more sensors provide greater visibility and self-healing with fewer truck rolls.
Going forward, there remains some widely shared concerns about mid- to long-term impacts from the pandemic and how to return to “normal,” meaning how operations, mutual aid and deferred investments should be handled. At the top of the near-term list is handling multiple events simultaneously, such as responding to extreme weather and its impacts while we’re still challenged by a pandemic.
Our various stakeholders, including customers, are part of a digital society that increasingly depends on reliable, resilient power for their livelihoods, healthcare, education, timely information and entertainment. That reliance only increases under the challenges wrought by a pandemic, as so many activities become virtual. Our report on how power utilities globally and in the United States have effectively coped with the pandemic’s challenges to date should be a source of reassurance that reliable, resilient, cost-effective power will be available when needed.
Aleksi Paaso is Director of Distribution Planning, Smart Grid & Innovation at ComEd, a senior member of the IEEE Power & Energy Society (PES), and lead author of “Sharing Knowledge on Electrical Energy Industry’s First Response to COVID-19.” He is responsible for leading the development and implementation of ComEd’s strategic smart grid initiatives, including the first utility-operated microgrid cluster, as well as distribution system planning for all of northern Illinois. He holds a Ph.D. in electrical engineering from the University of Kentucky and is a licensed professional engineer in the state of Illinois.