The utility response to COVID-19


During a recent webinar series hosted by Smart Energy International we discussed how the utility sector around the world has been impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic.

What have the implications been for it on a social, economic and technical level? We spoke to representatives from utilities around the world and asked them what coping mechanisms have been put in place to make sure the needs of employees and customers remain served. What are the financial implications of the pandemic on projects in construction? Lastly, we considered how technology has enabled them to continue operations and ensure reliability of service.

Reliability and professionalism are hard baked into the DNA of utilities around the world. The Coronavirus pandemic has forced these utilities to rethink the way in which many of their operations are performed, and the ways in which they engage with both their staff and their customers. Some of this has seen the need for social distancing in the extreme. And in other cases, it has seen utilities utilising underserved staff in ways that perhaps they would never have anticipated.

All sorts of extraordinary measures have been undertaken by utilities around the world. It’s interesting to understand how they developed their pandemic plan. We spoke to Michele Ivancich, HR manager (Central Italy), Italgas, who shared with us how the utility had tackled the pandemic, especially from a human resources perspective.

“Our goal in this situation was to guarantee the essential service that as a company we are required to provide our customers, while preserving the health of our workers, obviously. We established a crisis committee from the first day of the crisis which was capable of responding promptly to the changing situation. The committee was the point of contact for government guidelines and what we will do in our company to preserve the service and health of our employees. The main task was understanding and defining the essential level of service and what was really vital for our customer and what was not.”

Things can go south very quickly. So be thinking four or five steps down the road.

Josh Landon , Nevada Energy

Of course, in addition to putting in place rules and regulations with which to frame a pandemic response, one of the biggest challenges was that of staff motivation. Rajesh Bansal, Senior Executive Vice President and Head of Network Operations, BSES Rajdhani Power, had this to share.

“Most crucial was information and an awareness programme – sharing information about the precautions, do’s and don’ts. We formed smart reproduction teams to take care of sanitization, medical surveys, managing transport, accommodation and food for employees and all sorts of services such as IT support. We also made a plan for the employees’ health and hygiene and of course the most important, how to keep them motivated and how to address their personal issues, if any.

“The general guidelines as far as manpower was concerned was you had to call in the minimum number of required staff and make sure that staff movement was minimal. Secondly, for location specific activities, such as our SCADA centre or call centre, we had to make sure that we had an alternate site from which we could operate, in case the location being used was placed under quarantine. This way, we had an alternate office for those operations.

“Staff were advised not to go into consumer homes because most of the complaints could be attended to from pole or transformer level. In case they have to go inside, we provided a list of precautions which they are supposed to maintain. All the stuff working from home were told that they now need to be available 24/7, and

in case there is an emergency call, they have to be ready to move to the site as and when needed.

“We have been getting lots of motivational messages from consumers, from government, from policymakers, from media and others, and this is highly motivating. Our staff are coming out with lots of innovative ideas to handle the crisis. And by God’s grace, and through team effort, the network and team are all in good health, and we will ensure the efforts will be continued to ensure they remain so.”

Of course, there was another very important consideration – that of personal finances.

“At the outset, our general manager sent a message to all employees reassuring them that they would be paid. And I think that really set a tone company-wide that we were really on board and we were going to look out for each other, so that we could look out for customers – and that was a tremendous move on the part of management,” said Tim Epp, Senior Manager, Work & Asset Management, Snohomish County PUD.

In the Philippines, they took a similar but slightly different stance.

“You know, we’re conscious of the fact that a lot of people are going to be very constrained with their cash flows. In the Philippines, it is customary to pay a 13th and a 14th cheque, and that’s usually done in April and again in December,” Frank Thiel, Managing Director, Quezon Power, told us.

“We decided to advance the payment of the 13th and 14th month to all our staff as a way to ensure that they would have sufficient funds to carry them through this quarantine period. We wanted to ensure they could buy groceries and obtain the essentials that they need.

“Our generation plant houses about 265 permanent staff. But we also utilise about 300 contractors who come in on a daily basis to provide catering, cleaning, garden and coal pile management services. We are keeping a reduced number of contractors on site, but we have elected to pay everyone their full salary. So, all 300 of the contractors are getting paid their entire salaries, whether they’re reporting to the site or not. We felt that it was the right thing to do. In addition, because we are keeping staff at the site for a very extended period of time under very strict lockdown conditions, we have augmented their daily pay with what I call ‘hazard duty pay.’ This is a way to compensate for, or mitigate to some degree, the hardship that they’re going through by not being able to go home and see their families. We’ve put together these measures as a way to alleviate some of the concerns that we had about staff not having enough funds or being locked down at the site for an extended period of time.”

Of course, it’s not only utility staff that may need a little bit of motivation. Ray Sandoval of PNM Resources shared what they are doing, not only for their staff, but also for members of their community.

“We took a lead in stopping disconnects for non-payment and we waived late payment fees. We also allowed people to make payment plans that would work for them. We live in a rural state, we have an older population in New Mexico and sometimes paying through the internet or by phone can be a challenge for some of our senior citizens. We had a very serious discussion about closing our payment centres. And the decision was made to keep our customers as well as our employees safe by closing them. It’s one of the reasons we decided to stop disconnects for non-payment, waive any kind of late fees and stop reporting to the credit bureaus.

“Our CEO in downtown Albuquerque saw all the local businesses that were struggling and she thought we could do something that was good for the community. So, we started ordering lunches for 60 to 100 people and we donate those lunches to our operation guys who are still coming in; we donate these to non-profit organisations, to firefighters and to the police – basically any of those folks who are on the frontlines.” Roberto Zangrandi, Secretary General of E.DSO, the European Distribution System Operators Association, shared how, as an organisation, they are working together with their members to foster best practice and to ensure that communication between the various member organisations is facilitated in the best possible way.

“From the very first days of the crisis, we saw really good coordination among the leading DSOs of Europe and our regular conference calls will see up to 40 of our 43 members around the table sharing the decisions that they have taken, and the measures that they have implemented.

“We are building an inventory of best practices – what we see is general consistency by the members of E.DSO, allowing for variations due to their geographical situation, the magnitude and complexity of their grid and the structure of the customer sheet.”

The other thing is plan for your recovery success. Start planning. Every day we ask ‘what’s going on today?’ but how are you planning for success for tomorrow?

Ray Sandoval, PNM Resources

The US panel, when asked ‘What is the one piece of advice that you would share with other utilities?’ had the following to say:

“The one piece of advice that we’ve learned, especially in New York, is you have people infected in your workforce right now,” says the New York Power Authority’s Paul Tartaglia. “You won’t come to the realisation that they’re ill for another week. You’ve already been dealt next week’s hand. If you think you have a week or two weeks to respond you’re behind the eight ball already … So don’t think you have all the time you believe you have.”

Gary King, Chief Workforce Officer, SMUD, commented: “I think it’s important to really stay in close communication with the employees in your workforce. Make sure that they understand that you don’t have all the answers. We don’t know how long this will be or how impactful it will be. We’re dealing with imperfect information. We’ve asked people to take what we call a ‘one SMUD approach’ – that is putting the interests of the whole organisation or customers above individual concerns so that we don’t go into silos, protect turf, or withhold information.”

Josh Landon from Nevada Energy felt it was important for utilities to be thinking more than two steps ahead. “Things can go south very quickly. So be thinking four or five steps down the road. Think about things that weren’t possible for various reasons in your organisation six months ago. Those are the new normal. Those will be possible going forward. Take the proper steps to keep field crews and control room employees working safely and from a distance.”

Ray Sandoval from PNM Resources concluded: “Communicate early and often but also explain. We, as human beings, think that because we know something, if we just tell somebody something, they’ll understand the explanation. It’s really important right now, to explain why you’re doing things. Give people that information. It gives them a sense of comfort.

“The other thing is plan for your recovery success. Start planning. Every day we ask ‘what’s going on today?’ but how are you planning for success for tomorrow?” SEI