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Facing pandemic, utilities learn on the go, see lessons for future response

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Facing pandemic, utilities learn on the go, see lessons for future response

Electric utilities are already learning important lessons on how to respond to the next pandemic or unplanned crisis, but until a cure for the coronavirus is found or its spread is effectively contained, they are “planning in pencil” to address this new normal and the challenges it poses to the electric grid, utility executives said April 22 during a panel discussion.

"If we presented this as an exercise three months ago, we would have been laughed out of the room," said Anthony Natale, who handles emergency management at Consolidated Edison Co. of New York Inc. "This was something that most weren't ready for at this magnitude so we're writing the plan as we go."

Lincoln Bleveans, assistant general manager for power supply at Burbank Water and Power in California, added that the industry was "learning a ton" and would be very prepared for the next pandemic.

"But as we're going along now, we are learning as we go, we are planning in pencil, and it's everybody's first rodeo," he said during a webinar hosted by Power Magazine and the Electric Power Conference and Exhibition. "We need to take it in that light and do the best we can, knowing that we're going to be wrong on a few things and that we're going to have to adjust."

Planning gaps

The coronavirus pandemic is producing significant power-load declines and is contributing to much lower power prices across the country. Grid operators continue to monitor the evolving situation and maintain grid reliability is not being threatened, a position the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission also holds.

While utilities have been able to keep the lights on, Natale alluded to gaps in business continuity plans with regards to pandemic preparation and things that, in hindsight, he would have done differently.

Having in place prior to the outbreak a definition for an essential employee, pandemic staffing philosophies, validation of IT remote system capacity, and pre-assigned alternate work locations would have aided utilities’ response to the coronavirus, Natale said.

Instead, those aspects of the response were addressed on the fly. Essential employees were determined to be individuals who were mission-critical and limited in number. Staff was categorized into three groups: telecommuting, working with administrative or engineering controls, and sequestered control-center workers, he said of ConEd's response.

"At the end of the day, with how our society has evolved, a lot more people are working from home and I think we were very lucky [that] we had a very robust system that was able to handle that influx" in remote telework, Natale said. "Knowing that upfront would have been a home run, but we learned that on the back end."

Bleveans attributed the gaps in preparedness in part to pandemics being "a completely different animal" when compared with other disaster or emergency situations, the likes of which haven't been seen during the current age of electrification.

"Utilities are incredibly good at assessment and construction, rebuilding the system" following, for instance, an earthquake, Bleveans said. "Every assumption that you have in your earthquake preparedness plan is either questionable or wrong in a pandemic and infectious disease context," where people cannot work next to each other.

But Bleveans said he planned to roll the lessons learned from the pandemic response into Burbank’s other emergency planning work "because we’ve got to make as much lemonade out of today’s lemons as we possibly can."

Bleveans noted that the pandemic response has already prompted numerous tune-ups of processes and lines of communication that had been either theoretical or not used in decades.

"As difficult as these crises are, it does tune us up, it does forge that leadership and those processes" as well as build "a trust between different organizations and different parts of [an] organization that we can then leverage in that next emergency," Bleveans said.

Bob Taylor, president of CoalSAFETY, said that while this learning is taking place, it is essential that power companies document the lessons learned and revise their emergency preparedness and business continuity plans accordingly.

Capitalizing on this experience, Taylor said, would allow others in the future to learn without again having to experience the challenges utilities are now working through. "This not only applies to a pandemic but applies to just about any unplanned situation that we look at," he said.

Jasmin Melvin is a reporter with S&P Global Platts. S&P Global Market Intelligence and S&P Global Platts are owned by S&P Global Inc.