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 third 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.
Contingency planning is the bread and butter of the electric power industry. Keeping the lights on is always our top priority. We are constantly devising “what-if” scenarios that could threaten reliability and business continuity — including pandemics. In fact, a 2010 report by the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) and the North American Electric Reliability Corporation (NERC), “High-Impact, Low-Frequency Event Risk to the North American Bulk Power System,” addressed pandemics in detail. The report was prescient.
“The effects of a pandemic on the electric sector will differ from other high-impact, low-frequency (HILF) events in that pandemics are ‘people’ events,” the report stated. “Unlike in a coordinated attack, the initial impact to the bulk power system isn’t physical damage to the grid but rather the absence of critical personnel who operate the grid and those who support them.”
Beginning in early 2020, as news of impacts of the COVID-19 virus affecting the United States emerged, PJM — the largest electricity market in North America — activated its Incident Response Team, implemented its Pandemic Plan, and took steps to mitigate risk. In general, there are three key aspects about pandemics that deserve special attention: essential personnel, the wide-area nature of the event, and the recognition that the virus dictates your next steps and timeline.
Protect Essential Personnel
The tried-and-true recipe to protect essential personnel is simple: minimize contact, administer testing, isolate, and build bench strength. At PJM, the main focus of our strategy was on control room operators. The virus dictated the timeline of our phased approach.
In January, we began to posture against the pandemic. In order to reduce the exposure, PJM canceled international business travel, tours of the control room and international visitors to its campus in Valley Forge, Pennsylvania. PJM personnel who traveled internationally for personal reasons were tracked and quarantined. To minimize contact, each control room operator was assigned their own personal equipment (for example, keyboard, mouse, chair, etc.), we implemented social distancing and continued enhanced cleaning protocols (similar to flu season).
As the situation evolved, PJM continued to escalate the mitigation actions. In February, the PJM campus was closed to stakeholders, domestic travel was canceled, and the reporting of employee sickness or symptoms was tracked. PJM separated and isolated its control rooms, a new contactless shift turnover process was implemented, and the shifts were increased from eight to 12 hours. By March, all non-essential employees shifted to working from home, a posture that will remain for the rest of the year.
In April, PJM took the rare step of sequestering its control room operators. As the PES report documents, the New York ISO (NYISO) also took this step. In PJM’s case, the rapid rise in COVID-19 cases in the northeastern United States triggered the decision, which took into account federal, state and local guidance. The logistics associated with sequestration are intimidating. We had to arrange for housing, meals, health care, physical exercise, laundry, and COVID-19 testing for our control room operators, and an epidemiologist to review our pandemic plans. Every excruciating detail needed to be ironed out to maintain a vacuum-sealed isolation of essential personnel for an entire month. Even a deceptively simple procedure, like taking someone’s temperature, becomes a complex process as it takes into account Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) recommendations, personal protective equipment (PPE) training and certification, the confidentiality of biomedical information, etc.
PJM’s Operations, IT, and Facilities departments pushed the envelope and repurposed an operator training facility into a third control room, effectively creating a one-of-a-kind systems operation, and further confining operator shifts. Unlike most primary/backup control room setups, the three sites are live and staffed 24/7 — an absurd amount of data is maintained in sync through a proprietary fiber-backbone network (truly, an IT work of art).
Bench strength is an important line of defense. PJM initiated a comprehensive training plan, which included both online and simulator-time to meet NERC’s certification requirements, and to back up shift operators based on specific reliability tasks. The list of trainees included, among others, personnel who had previous experience in the control room and recent retirees. Of course, training will only take someone so far — there is a “tribal knowledge” conferred by experience that’s not easily transferable through training. We are expanding our digital strategy to research machine-learning recommender systems that can assist and provide guidance to bench operators.
Wide-Area Impacts & Interdependencies
Solving internal PJM challenges concerning essential personnel is only half the battle. Due to the wide-area nature of the pandemic, addressing critical interdependencies is absolutely essential.
For example, we were in constant coordination with the gas infrastructure (approximately one-third of the generation portfolio in PJM depends on gas). Similarly, transmission owners (TOs) and generator owners (GOs) typically perform equipment maintenance during the shoulder months (spring/fall) to get ready for the peak seasons (summer/winter). The scheduled outages dropped by approximately 37 percent during last spring — TOs and GOs were also trying to protect their own essential personnel. As readers can imagine, postponing maintenance indefinitely is not an option. In anticipation of an increase in outage tickets for the fall, we’ve conducted numerous studies to ensure that we can maintain reliability while the system is being taken apart.
Electricity demand has also been impacted. The shift from commercial/industrial to residential lowered the daily peak by approximately 10 percent, and the morning peak moved from 7–8 a.m., to 8–9 a.m. or 9–10 a.m. A similar response has been observed across the industry, with numbers that vary based on load composition (PJM’s load is approximately 37 percent residential, 37 percent commercial, and 26 percent industrial). We have also updated the long-term load forecast (2021 to 2024), which shows an approximate 1 percent reduction in peak demand.
The last interdependency to highlight is cybersecurity. We observed an increase in cyber activity — phishing and malware — that cynically tried to use COVID-19 in email subject lines to lure unsuspecting users into granting access to our enterprise network.
PJM expanded its communication efforts with our members, their state public utility commissions and the public. We shared our news and listened to our members share theirs. The Electricity Subsector Coordinating Council (ESCC), Electric Power Research Institute (EPRI), North American Transmission Forum (NATF), Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers (IEEE) and other industry organizations also served as a venue to share lessons learned. Altruistic mutual assistance is a cornerstone of our business.
Be Flexible as Conditions Change
Currently, PJM and its campuses are among those moving back to a “new-normal” following the recommendations of Pennsylvania’s “Green Phase,” which eases most restrictions based on public health data. However, PJM has decided to maintain a conservative posture, continuing its work-from-home stance and allowing only operators in its control rooms until the end of 2020.
People ask me about lessons learned. I’ll keep it simple: focus first on your essential personnel, don’t lose sight of critical interdependencies, and be ready to quickly adapt your plans and actions as conditions change.
Dr. Emanuel Bernabeu serves on the IEEE PES Industry Technical Support Leadership Committee and is director of Applied Innovation & Analytics at PJM, an Independent Service Operator. PJM manages the high-voltage electric system that provides power to 65 million people in all or parts of 13 states and the District of Columbia.