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US utilities, grid operators form plans to power through potential pandemic

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US utilities, grid operators form plans to power through potential pandemic

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Power plants could be operated with skeleton crews, according to utility officials.
Source: S&P Global Market Intelligence

Electric utilities may be affected by the outbreak of novel coronavirus in the U.S. and should prepare to operate with up to 40% of their workforce out sick or quarantined, according to a recent Edison Electric Institute report advising the industry on pandemic plans. That figure raises questions about whether power plant and grid employees will have to risk exposure to continue service, especially given that power is essential to other institutions strained by the outbreak, such as hospitals.

Domestic utilities and grid operators contacted by S&P Global Market Intelligence said they would address local outbreaks on a case-by-case basis, evacuate and disinfect workplaces exposed to the virus, and restrict access to critical areas. Travel restrictions are quickly spreading: PJM Interconnection, the country's largest grid operator, has limited employee travel and canceled an upcoming seminar for operators.

"We felt it was not prudent to have a concentration of grid operators in one place," wrote PJM officials in an email to stakeholders.

Other grid operators have followed suit. New York ISO announced in a March 9 press release an "indefinite suspension" of all in-person stakeholder meetings, while only Midcontinent ISO employees who are essential to operations can now access control centers. MISO facilities visitors will need to answer travel- and health-related questions before entering.

Responding to questions about the outbreak, Craig Cano, spokesman for the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, pointed to a reference guide by the North American Electric Reliability Corp. He noted that there are "no specific references to disease outbreaks in the NERC standards" but that "NERC does require that the registered entities plan for and conduct operations during emergency conditions." Registered entities include power plants and transmission control rooms, the spokesman said.

"We expect that generating plants and transmission control rooms would have procedures in place to ensure that they could be staffed appropriately," Cano said.

The NERC guidelines do not directly outline when or if a power plant would need to be shut down.

Keeping the plant running

Utilities are also making contingency plans to keep power plants operating. In the case of an employee infection, said Hawaiian Electric Co. Inc. Vice President of Corporate Relations Jim Kelly, the affected plant would be cleaned and access would be restricted but the plant would keep running. HECO has enough backup personnel to fill in coverage gaps, he said.

"There is a bench here of people who are qualified to do the work," Kelly said.

A number of utilities, such as NorthWestern Corp., have said they have the technology and security in place to accommodate remote work, but few utilities will say how many of their critical workers are able to work from home.

Some employees at Oklahoma City-based OGE Energy Corp., such as those in a customer call center, could easily work remotely, said Jerrod Moser, OGE's corporate health and safety director.

But some data cannot be accessed from home, so certain workers would need to be physically present in control centers, Moser said. Others usually considered nonessential could be deemed essential personnel in emergency situations. Moser declined to speculate as to what would happen if a plant employee was infected.

Some utilities and grid operators such as PacifiCorp Inc, MDU Resources Group Inc., Avangrid Inc., Pacific Gas and Electric Co. and ISO New England did not detail plans and simply said they were implementing preventive measures, monitoring the outbreak or both.

The Electric Reliability Council Of Texas Inc. released a redacted pandemic preparedness plan in January that identified which departments and managers are responsible for certain mobilization procedures, such as maintaining supplies and tracking employee exposure, and also provided guidance about managing fear and how to respond if an on-site employee contracts the virus. Visitation restrictions to its facilities are in place until March 31.

PJM spokesman Jeffrey Shields said in a March 5 email that employees who are ill or who have traveled to affected areas must be cleared by a doctor before returning to work. In the event of an infection, offices would be evacuated, sanitized and reopened at the direction of executive management, he said.

Terry Bote, spokesman for the Colorado Public Utilities Commission, said the majority of electric generating stations in that state are manned by at least four employees who cover each job on different shifts.

"As a result, it seems very unlikely that the coronavirus would take out a plant," Bote said.