Challenges of operating a grid during a pandemic


Anja Langer, the CCO of DEPsys looks at the threats and challenges experienced by energy grid operators during the pandemic.

Overnight, COVID-19 lockdowns have transformed our economies and societies. Factories were quiet; shops shuttered, offices were empty as people stayed at home to stop the spread.

The IEA’s most recent report reveals that global electricity demand dropped by 2.5% in Q1 2020, but it’s masking far greater falls in specific countries and since the lockdown.

Demand drops have been most pronounced in countries with large service sectors and strict lockdowns.

For instance, Italy’s power demand fell by over 25% since entering lockdown, with falls of at least 15% in France, Spain, the UK, India, and the US Northwest.

There are implications for all parts of the energy value chain, not least for the distribution system operators (DSOs) and distribution network operators (DNOs) in charge of managing low and medium voltage grids.

However, the most serious threats are perhaps not those you might think of first. Broadly, we can split the challenges into two categories: technology and people

The technological challenge

Loads on the grid changed. In residential areas, many people were confined to their homes, either working remotely or unable to work. The knock-on effect was an increase in household demand (especially in areas where electrified heating is the norm), and increase loads on datacentres, as video conferencing and streaming services saw rocketing demand.

At the same time, commercial and industrial areas saw significant drops. This created challenges for DSOs who must ensure frequency and voltage stay within operational parameters at all times.

However, based on our experience in Western Europe, DSOs, are more than equal to that challenge. For decades, distribution networks have attracted ample investment and deployed it well. The assets and systems are generally in place to manage these fluctuations: there is enough copper in the ground, big enough transformers and sufficient resilience to cope.

That said, other areas of increased demand are more important than residential ones – where the stakes are higher than an interrupted Netflix binge. There has been a race to establish new temporary hospitals and other essential service hubs, such as the Nightingale Hospital in London’s ExCel Centre, or the field hospital in Madrid’s IFEMA Convention Centre.

For both temporary and established hospitals, it is essential to maintain a constant and high-quality power supply. Often there will be back up generators to handle outages, but what if a power surge or failure were to damage critical and scarce equipment, such as ventilators? It simply cannot happen.

However, the existing distribution grids in these locations may not have been designed with this sort of use in mind. What’s more, older assets don’t have a trace of digital technology, effectively leaving grid managers in the dark as to their performance and ability to foresee issues before they become an issue – surely a nerve-inducing scenario. The only way to be sure is to send someone, in person, to check, which brings us onto the human challenges.

The people challenge

DSOs are mostly well accustomed and well prepared to face technical challenges. Personnel challenges can be more complicated, though.

Smooth operations rely on the decades of accumulated experience spread across the workforce. At the best of times, this is a concern as a growing body of retirees gradually take that wisdom with them, and younger colleagues lack the same depth of the first-hand experience.

That problem only becomes more acute with COVID-19. The pandemic requires that DSOs minimise both employees working in central control centers, and engineers deployed in the field. This is especially true for older workers, who are more vulnerable due to both their age and higher propensity to have other health conditions.

At best, this means fewer experienced hands are available to deploy as they stay at home, self-isolating. At worst, it could mean more employees off work ill.

So, although DSOs are managing admirably so far, there was not a lot of spare capacity in the workforce, to begin with, and that knowledge may be spread even more thinly now. As such, the real threat to grid stability during the pandemic is not technological – it is that key personnel are removed from the workforce and compromise operational excellence and service continuity.

Digital resilience

Human expertise is irreplaceable. There are ways to get even more value from it and increase resilience across the network and safeguard business continuity.

Most legacy distribution network assets are pre-digital. This means grid managers cannot monitor and control assets remotely. When there is the luxury of time and workforce to inspect assets in-person, that is inconvenient. When those luxuries are removed, it becomes a risk: how are utilities to know which problems to prioritise, how are they to head off nascent issues before they become full-fledged problems?

The priority for DSOs must be to find ways to minimise the need for the physical presence of staff, maximise the ability to work remotely and share intelligence more broadly to ensure business continuity. That means digitalisation, and the ability to monitor and assess the status of the grid and its assets from afar – helping both protect people from unnecessary exposure to the virus and to protect networks from employees’ potential absence.

A time will come when DSOs will have to consider the medium-term implications for their networks when societies reach the recovery phase from COVID-19, and indeed the longer-term lessons the pandemic can teach us. We will revisit these topics in future articles, but for now, the focus must be on protecting people and essential services from the immediate threats of the pandemic. So far, European DSOs have risen to the challenge impressively – a cause for optimism in difficult times.