Electric utilities batten down the hatches as coronavirus spreads

Published on March 23, 2020 by Hil Anderson

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Electric utilities are getting their first official readiness check for the coronavirus pandemic this week as the North American Electric Reliability Corporation (NERC) conducts a roll call of their plans and preparations as the spring storm season looms.

A questionnaire was sent out by NERC this month seeking information about the steps that individual companies have taken to shore up their operations in the face of potential staffing and equipment shortages as well as ramped-up mischief from malicious hackers and cyber scammers. The responses were due at NERC on March 20 and will then be compiled and forwarded to the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission.

The questions pertain to the steps utilities nationwide have taken to maintain their operations in the face of potentially large numbers of workers calling in sick. NERC warned that the fallout could also include suppliers, contractors, and a lack of availability of the mutual-assistance crews that are counted on in the event of a major weather-related emergency such as a tornado, severe thunderstorm or spring flood. The Edison Electric Institute (EEI) has predicted that utilities could see as much as 40 percent of their workforce sick, quarantined or sidelined by the time the pandemic fades away.

“This is a rapidly developing situation, and NERC is balancing concerns for the health and welfare of its own workforce and the many stakeholders they interact with while staying focused on its mission to assure the reliability and security of the bulk power system across North America,” NERC said in its announcement, which was issued March 11 as part of a Level 2 alert. A Level 2 NERC alert does not require any actions by utilities other than providing a status update.

While not mandatory, NERC does have key recommendations for utilities to incorporate into their battle plans:

Recommendation #1: Maintain up-to-date situational awareness of the current status of coronavirus, also known as COVID-19, including estimates of its spread and impacts. Incorporate the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s most current travel advisories into plans.

Recommendation #2: Reinforce good personal hygiene practices across the workforce. Consider increasing the frequency and extent of cleaning facilities and equipment, including control rooms and vehicles.

Recommendation #3: Review and update existing business continuity plans to see if they will be enough to keep the company functioning in the event the pandemic creates workforce-shortages both in-house and among suppliers and contractors. Plans should be in harmony with guidance from state, local, and federal health agencies.

Recommendation #4: Assess the resilience of supply chains, especially if they involve suppliers from Asia or “just-in-time” inventory strategies.

Recommendation #5: Assess the need to adjust schedules for planned construction and maintenance. Prioritize the most important projects and consider potential logistics glitches.

Recommendation #6: Anticipate and prepare for potential cyberattacks, including malware and spear-phishing, from opportunists taking advantage of an increased number of employees telecommuting. Make sure network security is up to par and remind staff not to fall for disinformation or click onto suspicious links.

The National Association of Regulatory Utility Commissioners (NARUC) and its research arm, the National Regulatory Research Institute, added a comprehensive library of news and other resources related to COVID-19 to its website, including the ability to look up status reports from each individual state. “These resources will allow our state members, industry, the media and the general public to stay abreast of the range of state and industry actions pertaining to COVID-19,” said Mississippi Commissioner and NARUC President Brandon Presley.

Early in the outbreak, EEI issued a guide to the potential effects it would have on electric utilities. The eight-page document, “Electric Companies & Pandemic Planning,” urges utilities to shore up every detail of their own operations from reviewing supply chains and outage-response plans down to demanding that each employee and their families take measures to avoid spreading the virus and be alert for online scams. “Misinformation, particularly on social media, will occur,” EEI said. “You should pay close attention to guidance provided by local and state health departments and the CDC.”

Electric utility companies are also closely coordinating their pandemic response with the federal government through the CEO-led Electricity Subsector Coordinating Council (ESCC). The ESCC serves as the principal liaison between the federal government and the electric power industry and helps coordinate efforts to prepare for and respond to major disasters and threats to critical infrastructure, including pandemics that could impact the energy workforce.

Long Days Ahead
Meanwhile, the rapid spread of the coronavirus has come home to roost in the form of sweeping closures of schools and businesses and people isolating themselves at home, burning gas and electricity at times when their residential consumption would otherwise be minimal.

Pacific Gas & Electric said it was marshaling its field crews to keep basic services intact and was suspending scheduled construction work that would require interrupting electricity and natural gas service to customers. “We see our role at PG&E during this very difficult time as helping to maintain essential services, no matter what,” Andy Vesey, PG&E Utility CEO and president, said Monday. “With inclement weather continuing across Northern and Central California, that means tracking weather systems and working with our workforce in the field to stage resources, inspect our equipment, make needed repairs and ensure we’re prepared for what comes next,” he said.

The possibility of a labor shortage or supply pinch could also throw the deployment of new renewable energy projects off track as well, the solar power industry warned. “We know anecdotally that the COVID-19 pandemic is affecting delivery schedules and our ability to meet project completion deadlines based partly on new labor shortages,” Abigail Ross Hopper, president and CEO of the Solar Energy Industries Association, said in a March 17 statement.

Regulations on various employee certifications in regards to reliability standards were loosened by both NERC and FERC to allow utilities more staffing flexibility. “The effects of the coronavirus will be considered an acceptable basis for non-compliance with obtaining and maintaining personnel certification, as required in Reliability Standard PER-003-2,” the agencies said in a release.

Utilities were also adjusting their practices for face-to-face interactions with their customers. PG&E is urging customers who pay their bills at one of their offices to seriously consider switching to online payment and will also offer pay-by-phone options for the less tech-savvy. In addition, PG&E technicians and other customer-facing employees will wear disposable gloves while making house calls and avoid handshakes. “We recognize that this is a rapidly changing situation and an uncertain time for many of our customers,” said Chief Customer Officer and Senior Vice President Laurie Giammona. “Our most important responsibility is the health and safety of our customers and employees.”

The threat of a malicious hack complicating the situation has been serious since well before coronavirus emerged. The U.S. Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency (CISA) said that ransomware had made its way into the computer system of an unidentified natural gas pipeline operator in February, basically blinding the control-room staff and forcing the pipeline to shut down for two days.

The CISA issued an advisory on March 13 cautioning companies of all types that hackers were actively looking for weaknesses in virtual private networks, which enable telecommuting employees to link up with their employers’ IT systems. Those vulnerabilities could result in more fake emails targeting telecommuters that contain links that could quickly spread another type of dangerous virus throughout the company.

Leave the Lights On
Even if they aren’t understaffed this spring, EEI’s member investor-owned utility companies nationwide have already agreed to help consumers by pledging to not shut off their customers’ power during the crisis. “The last thing we want our customers and communities to worry about in the current situation is whether they will be disconnected,” said Joe Dominguez, CEO of Chicago’s ComEd.

Some utilities, including, PG&E, will also offer flexible payment plans for their customers. PG&E’s Giammona said, “We want to provide some relief from the stress and financial challenges many are facing during this worldwide, public health crisis.”