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Philip Gordon examines the operational implications of the COVID-19 pandemic on utility operations. This article is largely derived from opinions expressed by panellists during the COVID-19: Utility Crisis Management series of webinars hosted by Smart Energy International and Clarion Energy.

It’s been hard to find stable footing in 2020. Even the most surely-laid plans, based on the best available research, under the scrutiny of the most astute in our global economy have been unable to say with any consensus how our world has changed in just a few short months; nor how it will change as we look forth to leaders around the world to help us navigate our next cautious steps.

This article was originally published in Smart Energy International Issue 3-2020. Read the full digimag  or subscribe to receive a print copy here.

These disastrous few months however have seen so many put principle ahead of personal interest and hold the line in a fight so large it threatens even our global efforts to protect the climate.

In the utility sector though, maintaining a balance, and navigating emergencies is nothing new. As climate shifts gather momentum, natural disasters have seen utilities do the extraordinary on an everincreasing basis.

The specifics of the challenge have remained the same. Keeping the lights on – providing the grid upon which our economies operate with certainty and resilience. That’s not an easy weight to shoulder, and yet, as we found in our April 2020 global COVID-19 webinar series, utilities have taken the load and given even more.

Two particularly noteworthy strengths that came to the fore ahead of and in the early stages of the crisis were displayed by utility leaders at all levels: agility and innovation. These strengths formed the balancing force to the upheaval the world has faced, but these are not new in a sector once considered to be slow and tired.

A global commitment emerged to keep the lights on for all consumers and suspend disconnections, continue adding customers to the grid, and conduct continued essential maintenance, providing consumers peace of mind especially at a time when they may be worried about paying bills with often reduced or lost income.

Considering the pace of development in the sector, the already-felt effects of climate change in ever worsening extreme weather events, and the race to a decarbonised future, utilities are unrecognised experts at facing unknown quantities.

What became clear during all four sessions, with representatives from Frost & Sullivan, E.DSO, Enedis, New York Power Authority, the African Development Bank, and leading utilities from the Philippines to New Mexico, was that nothing could have prepared the sector for this.

“Given that it’s a pandemic situation, it may not be something that you’ve already scripted out within your business continuity plans, like an exposure protocol,” said Tim Epp, manager of work and asset management at Snohomish County PUD in Washington state, one of the earliest hotspots in the US. “What do we want to do when we come into those scenarios? If you have that set out, obviously you can just follow that protocol when you encounter that situation, as opposed to trying to scramble through it.”

Leonardo D’acquisto, head of institutional relations at Italian gas utility Italgas, stated: “We had contingency plans, but nothing of the dimension that proved to be necessary to face this challenge.”

Ray Sandoval, director of corporate communications at PNM Resources, a 2,761MW investor-owned utility based in Albuquerque, New Mexico, noted “Obviously, you plan for situations, wildfires, storms or outages that are for a prolonged period of time, and of course in that is pandemic planning. But I can tell you that now, having gone through the experience of a couple of weeks, there is a big difference ‘experiencing it’ compared to what is planned on paper. We’ve done some really good things, and we’ve had to put some things together as we go.”

Finding the centre

Panel members from both the US and Europe related dynamic reactions from leadership in all areas of their organisations. Paul Tartaglia, senior vice president of technology and innovation at New York Power Authority (NYPA), noted early action to try to get ahead of possible infections in the state which proved to be the early epicentre of the pandemic in the US. “In February, it became evident that there was a very high risk of this spreading across the globe. We stood up our incident command structure and went into full-blown incident command mode.”

Epp added: “We started up our incident command team and staff with key players from around the company. They’ve done a tremendously good job… Kudos to our IT team who really jumped in and helped us get out the gates and get everybody working remotely.

“The very first patient confirmed to have COVID-19 was diagnosed on 20 January and treated at our hospital here in Everett. Just a few weeks later an explosion of cases was discovered at a nursing home just 25 miles away. On March 23, the governor of the state issued an order for all non-essential staff to remain home. Fortunately, our company had already been moving in that direction for a couple of weeks prior to that. In fact, my own team had begun telecommuting during the first week of March.”

Holding the line

Globally, utilities showed a similar operational split in terms of essential onsite teams. Certain functions require on-site operations such as SCADA, operations and maintenance centres, repair depots and medical teams.

That was reflected in different strategies, but common themes included sequestration requiring long-term lock-in shifts of two weeks or longer.

In the Czech Republic, CEZ Distibuze introduced fortnight-long lock-in shifts, with staff accommodated on site, and a containment procedure, and in early-April, a 37-person team voluntarily entered into a sequestration programme at NYISO, meaning isolation from friends and family.

Roberto Zangrandi, Secretary General of European Distribution System Operators (E.DSO), noted other common themes that extended to the US and Asia, including government and World Health Organisation mandated social distancing guidelines, increased shift supervision, intensified cleaning and shift handover procedures being conducted telephonically rather than in person.

Keeping up momentum

Epps noted: “In terms of the work itself, nearly all work has stopped. It’s only absolutely essential outage restoration that is being taken care of now. And maybe a handful of exceptions that have to be reviewed by management.”

In South Africa, executive director of energy for the City of Cape Town municipality Kadri Nassiep noted a unique opportunity to undertake repairs on the city’s beleaguered network, thanks to a shift in demand from intensive power users to mainly residential use. “We have seen a significant decrease in demand,” he noted.

Getting ahead of the curve

Rajesh Bansal, senior executive vice president and head of network operations at BSES Rajdhani Power in Delhi, India, shared how he and his team got ahead of both demand forecasting and billing by forecasting their estimated load curve – a move which played a vital role in determining where their operational focus should be in the weeks ahead. “The crux of the thing is how best you can forecast your load curve – not only of the demand curve, but also the load on the network on various assets of the network. If you can estimate it properly, that’s half the battle.”

Taking stock

Tartaglia said the NYPA started planning inventory requirements early. “We went out and we looked at our preventive maintenance and corrective maintenance workload for the next six months.”

In India, Bansal noted material planning as being the second-most critical aspect in planning. We compiled all the data about the material available, not only at our stores but within the field with our construction team and with our vendors and stockist. There are a lot of EPC contractors who do turnkey jobs of network revamping and we shared our stock with them for the purposes of coordination.” Repurposing previously mothballed and scrapped equipment also helped make up part of the anticipated shortfall.

Staying secure internally

Sandoval stressed the importance of enhanced cybersecurity during the pandemic period. “In this day and age, we’ve seen a lot of cyberattacks and people trying to get into our networks or trying to see if they can take out the electrical grid. So you have to be ever vigilant – not just of the physical – but also of the virtual in our new world.”

Ravi Krishnaswamy, senior vice president, Industrial Practice Asia Pacific, Frost & Sullivan, urged utilities to take note of the increased cyber risk, driven in large part by the increase in connections to utility networks as a result of remote working.

“While our personal hygiene is very important terms of washing the hands frequently we believe that cyber hygiene is a very, very important factor,” he shared.

A smarter grid is paying for itself

A particularly tricky and revealing question is also arguably the one most open to speculation: Are investments in technologies like IoT, augmented reality, virtual reality, and digital twinning paying off, and has the timeline changed for implementing and deploying these technologies changed?

According to Tartaglia, yes, they are. “I think most folks have seen the Power Authority striving to become the first end-to-end 100% digital utility. I really think our investment, especially in our M&D (monitoring and diagnostic centre), is exponentially more valuable than it would have been if the status quo had carried on.”

“The guys who work at Thanksgiving and Christmas are the guys who are in the plant. Now we have a crew of guys from our M&D centre actually looking at the assets, and they’re able to proactively identify equipment that may be in early stages of failure, instruments that are out of calibration and they are able to inform the operators proactively. So, by using and leveraging our M&D capabilities, the return on our investment is now exponentially greater than what we ever really expected it to be.”

“I’m sure once the dust settles and we look at what the benefits are, and the near misses that we may have avoided by our investment in monitoring and diagnostics, advanced pattern recognition, artificial intelligence or virtual reality – we’re going to come to realize that given the next disruption (whatever it may be – blackout, hurricane or pandemic), we’re going to probably feel more confident that those investments are sound. Those investments are an insurance policy.”

Will the pandemic accelerate investment in modernisation and digitilisation?

According to Epps, yes. “Our utility still reads meters with meter readers, and I know quite a few utilities out in the country have moved beyond AMI. We have stopped all meter reading and that forces us into

a situation where we are going to have to do estimation for all billing. And if any of you have experience with trying to estimate a monthly bill, that’s challenging to say the least. It will probably cause quite a bit of consternation with some of our customers.”

“… I think that technologies such as this are going to be absolutely required, not only for good billing, but for increased visibility, and all the things that you would expect for AMI, but also for the safety of our employees as well.”

Tartaglia shared similar sentiments: “I think AMI is going to take a pretty high priority now within the organisation. With so many people telecommuting, we’re taking a harder look at any process which is still reliant upon paper, and we’ll be looking at taking paper out of the workflows and getting more electronic.”

Obstacles in the way of progress

Whilst most agreed that outage management, essential maintenance and other resilience-focussed efforts would be the focus of what was deemed as essential work, utility leaders held differing perspectives on the ongoing development of new projects from both an operational and financial perspective.

For the NYPA, Tartaglia noted: “We’ve wound down a number of our major construction projects. We have concerns obviously about workforce exposure, and also about employees travelling great distances to and from these worksites and the potential to expose other members of the community.”

“95% of all the [US] cases were in the metropolitan New York area. So, we’re reconsidering which projects to stand back up again – in a very strategic fashion – both to help expedite those projects and provide the greatest value to the citizens of the state of New York, and also those projects that could potentially help jumpstart the economy.

For projects already in development, work could continue. Josh Langdon, director of grid operations & reliability at NV Energy, noted that “big capital projects are continuing as planned to the extent possible.”

“The procurement aspects haven’t been an issue because we already had parts in the warehouse already scheduled to do that work. If there is a lag with that we’ll see those feature impacts perhaps after the summer months, with future projects that haven’t yet started or with components or equipment in manufacturing phases. We are seeing some of that already with equipment, transformers particularly coming out of China.”

Using a fall to learn lessons, and be better than before

“In every crisis, there is an opportunity.” Those were the words from Ravi Krishnaswarmy when addressing Frost & Sullivan’s outlook on the industry in the months ahead.

In Africa, as in other regions, microgrids and minigrids can play an important role as a means of resilient power supply, “not just for hospitals, but also for a lot of clinics and family practices and community districts,” noted Krishnaswarmy.

“We believe this crisis will probably trigger a large scale move towards decentralised, resilient solar plus storage or any other microgrid”.

As to whether renewables would still be on the radar of global governments was unclear, even to Frost and Sullivan; however, there is still hope from the private sector.

“Broadly, what we see is at least the commitments from large corporations.” Krishnaswarmy held out further hope for the sector, suggesting a quick recovery within a year or so.

“We believe it will be a setback for the short term – maybe three to six months – but things should come back to something like they were before.”

As the world shifts increasingly to a consensus on what the ‘new normal’ looks like in a post-pandemic, very different looking world, we can anticipate two things as constants. Change, and progress. The utility industry, it seems, won’t stop long enough to pat itself on the back – there’s more important work to be done. What has been heartening has been a global unification of the industry, a sharing of materials, knowledge, skills, and learnings that will deliver new levels of resilience, new ways of working towards a just energy transition, and new reasons to be proud of being part of the sector we serve.

For a second, let us remember that the real heroes of society are those whose work we see, but rarely acknowledge. The security they provide to carry us through times of crisis goes largely unrecognised because their work takes place either out of sight or beyond the layman’s understanding. Behind the doctors, police, fire services and other essential instruments of society are those the heroes rely on. That’s worth more than a nod but – as always – it will do.