- Utilities responding to the challenges of COVID-19 have adapted practices developed for past emergency situations, but physical distancing requirements of the pandemic response in some instances have forced entirely new ways of approaching safety measures.
- Consolidated Edison has been utilizing two sets of command and support staff in separate locations, as more than 350 of its employees have tested positive for COVID-19 and eight have died. In the future, more will be done in advance to determine which employees are essential and to ensure remote-work capabilities, according to Anthony Natale, a member of ConEd's emergency preparedness team.
- For municipal utilities, grid operations have become tightly enmeshed with other critical services like police, fire and health providers, according to Lincoln Bleveans, assistant general manager for power supply at Burbank Water & Power.
Building on decades of experience with storm response, earthquakes, fire and other emergencies, utilities are working to keep the electric grid stable while also prioritizing the health and safety of their workers.
ConEd has for years had a strategy in place for operating during a pandemic, but is also remaining flexible and adapting to the circumstances. "We're writing the plan as we go," Natale said Wednesday during a web conference organized by Power Magazine.
Almost 100 ConEd employees remain out of work and the utility has taken extensive steps to stem the spread of the novel coronavirus.
Asked what ConEd would do differently in the next crisis, Natale said the utility would define in advance who is an "essential employee," address gaps in remote access capabilities, establish and pre-assign alternative work locations, and validate IT remote system capacity.
One of the largest challenges has been to manage physical distancing requirements. The typical disaster-response scenario includes getting essential employees together in one location to manage the situation.
After Superstorm Sandy each ConEd employee was assigned an emergency role, but in the future those will include alternate work location assignments.
ConEd has mandated one worker per vehicle for transportation, usually including a utility truck and car. "If we don't have enough company cars you take your own and we compensate you," Natale said. In job situations where six-feet distancing cannot be maintained, he said that is being managed with personal protection equipment.
ConEd has also been monitoring sick absences, and has seen those begin to return to "normal" levels. Ideally, the utility would use six work groups to maintain operations working 12 hour schedules that would allow for time off, medical monitoring and work, Natale said.
"Sequestration triggers" assess employee levels and call for more strict remote work requirements if minimum acceptable staffing levels cannot be maintained. ConEd officials say the utility is sequestering certain key employees as part of its plan to continue providing safe, reliable service.
Many of the changes enacted, in particular to enable remote meetings, are likely to become the new normal.
"I don't think you're going to see [so many] in person meetings," Natale said. "We're all getting used to it." Future trainings where employees are physically present will likely include larger venues with smaller classes.
In Burbank, with its much-smaller service territory, Bleveans said the vertically-integrated municipal utility's operations are now inseparable from the city's response.
"When we look at our circumstances and response, it has to be inextricably linked to what the city of Burbank is doing in general," Bleveans said. He added that when the media talks about essential services, they tend to focus on health care, police and fire.
"Now that we're in this age of electrification, utilities are essential, too," said Bleveans. "I wish we got a little more love from the world ... because we really do underpin everything that happens in society."
While the world has dealt with disease outbreaks before — including HIV/AIDS, SARS, H1N1 and Ebola — Bleveans noted that this is the first time a pandemic has broken out alongside widespread electrification. "This really is everyone's first rodeo," he said. And with electrification only growing, "we will become even more essential than we are now ... our economies simply can't work without electricity."
One key takeaway from the COVID-19 outbreak is the need for response flexibility, said Bleveans. For instance, the city of Burbank has been well-prepared for some types of disasters — earthquakes, for instance — but "every assumption in your earthquake preparedness plan is either questionable or wrong in a pandemic."
"We are ingrained in thinking about disaster prep and assuming we'll be able to be next to each other," said Bleveans. "And in a pandemic context that just isn't the case. ...We are figuring this out as we go along."