Powering Through the Pandemic

Electric utilities reveal what worked and what didn’t in COVID-19 responses

6 min read
Executives from the New York Power Authority observe progress on a transmission-line project.
A Walk in the Woods: In June, as COVID-19 cases were on the decline in their state, executives from the New York Power Authority traveled north to observe progress on a transmission-line project.
Photo: Philip Kamrass/New York Power Authority

Over their 140-year history, electric utilities have figured out how to deal with all sorts of calamities: floods, hurricanes, monsoons, earthquakes, ice storms, wildfires, even active shooters. But the last time they experienced something comparable to the COVID-19 pandemic, it was 1918, and only a third of U.S. homes had electricity.

In the COVID-19 crisis, most of the utilities’ existing disaster responses were of little use. The pandemic was both geographically boundless and also long-lasting, and yet it didn’t pose any immediate threat of physical damage. Rather, the risk was something new: Grid operators worried that if huge numbers of essential workers fell ill, key pieces of infrastructure—generating plants, substations, transmission and distribution lines—could become damaged or inoperable. This was at a time when the importance of uninterrupted electrical service was paramount, because hospitals’ response to COVID-19 depended strongly on suites of medical tools. Those included ultrasound and computed tomography for diagnosis and, in the most serious cases, ventilators for treatment.

Now, as utilities that endured the first wave of outbreaks begin returning to normal operations, they are taking stock of their responses to the pandemic. Meanwhile, as new hot spots emerge, utilities that escaped the first wave are bracing for their own first encounters.

The New York Power Authority (NYPA), the state’s public utility, was one of the organizations buffeted by the first wave in the United States. In mid-March, with COVID-19 cases beginning to soar in parts of the state, NYPA found itself grappling with how to deal with the anticipated onslaught. “We were trying to find strategic ways to make sure we could isolate key staff,” recalls Joseph Kessler, chief operating officer. “One of the things that we considered was our capacity. Should the virus go into our key staff, do we have enough backups?”

Projections suggested that NYPA did, but it hoped to avoid having to find out for sure. Office workers, such as those in management, payroll, and billing, were asked to work from home. But the specialists who run NYPA’s 16 electrical generation facilities and troubleshoot the equipment could not work remotely.

So the utility began bringing beds into their plants, and even towed some dormitory-type trailers to work sites, so key workers could comfortably remain on-site around the clock. After several weeks, NYPA rotated them out and replaced them with a second shift. “Sequestering is one method of social distancing that was helpful for us in terms of making sure our essential personnel were safe,” Kessler says. He himself directed operations from a makeshift office in his home.

Trailer camp set up by the New York Power Authority. Short Commute: As COVID-19 cases began surging, the New York Power Authority set up “trailer camps” where essential employees could live around the clock. The camps were set up at key facilities, such as the Lewiston Pump Generating Plant, in Western New York. Photo: Paul Pasquarello/New York Power Authority

The measures managed to keep critical personnel free of infection. As of the end of May, the utility was winding down the sequestration plan, but it remains vigilant and ready to return to that plan, or take new steps should cases of the virus begin to spike again.

In devising their responses to the pandemic, NYPA and other U.S. utilities called upon their experiences during two previous outbreaks, the bird flu of 2005 and the swine flu of 2009, according to Kessler. But COVID-19 spread further and faster than either of those, and it had unique attributes, such as a much higher degree of spread by infected but asymptomatic people. That meant the electricity sector had to adapt existing guidelines to account for the realities of the specific disease, not just for its own sake but for the sake of the countless medical workers and patients depending on a fully functional electricity grid. “Frontline hospital workers and ventilators and first responders don't work without electricity,” notes Scott Aaronson, vice president for security and preparedness at the Edison Electric Institute, the association representing U.S. investor-owned utility companies.

The industry is now compiling its experiences on how to deal with COVID-19, Aaronson adds. “We are literally writing a book,” he says. “We have crowdsourced from hundreds of experts all across the sector.” He’s referring to a resource guide for dealing with COVID-19 from the Electricity Subsector Coordinating Council, a group made up of utility executives. “It started as a 6-page document, sort of a pamphlet,” Aaronson adds. “It’s 112 pages today.” 

The guide contains recommendations for pandemic-related issues faced by utilities, such as how to identify which personnel are critical, how to practice social distancing in the tight confines of a control facility, how to clean and disinfect control rooms, and how to prepare for difficulties in getting critical equipment.

Another concern is how to handle situations that require mutual aid. Utilities often help each other out during emergencies—for instance, sending repair crews to help with downed power lines after a storm. But that presents challenges when people from different regions are not supposed to be mingling. So the industry developed COVID-19 protocols for mutual aid, which include limiting the times when two people are in a bucket at the top of a pole and restricting personnel to one person per vehicle or per hotel room. Utilities put those protocols into practice in early April, when tornadoes from eastern Texas to the mid-Atlantic region left 1.5 million people without power, and they worked well, Aaronson says. “Some of these protocols are going to be used even after the pandemic,” he says.

Kessler says utilities have also agreed to expand the concept of mutual aid to include the sharing of control-room personnel, if the virus renders key members of one company’s workforce unable to work.

NYPA has also been benefiting from efforts, dating back to 2013, to digitize more of its operations. Under the initiative, the utility built up its information-technology infrastructure, installed remote sensors throughout its generating plants, and provided more handheld instruments to employees. The organization also benefited from prior experimentation with a couple of other technologies. “Drone operation for routine inspections or 3D modeling and 3D printing are things that were novelties but became essentials during this crisis,” Kessler says. He explains that NYPA used 3D modeling to examine its infrastructure and 3D printing to test potential replacement parts, which the utility would then machine with more standard tools.

Face shields produced by 3D printers owned by the NYPA. Kitchen Campaign: In April and May, Greg Woodcock, a planner at the New York Power Authority’s Blenheim-Gilboa Pumped Storage Project, was one of several NYPA employees who used 3D printers owned by the NYPA to produce face shields for medical workers and first responders. Working at home during the lockdown, Woodcock operated the printer in his kitchen. Photo: New York Power Authority

In the future, NYPA may manufacture those parts with 3D printers, Kessler says. During the pandemic, it even used 3D printing to create plastic face shields for its workers and others. “I think going forward, we're actually going to double down on all of our digital strategy to make sure that we can respond to the next crisis,” he adds.

Power companies were also forced to confront supply-chain problems during the pandemic. Utilities generally carry what is known as “storm stock”—extra poles, conductors, transformers, and other equipment that might need to be rapidly available. But the surplus stock tends to be somewhat meager, Aaronson says. The industry already has equipment-sharing programs in case one area runs short, and it’s pushing suppliers to ramp up production where possible, although many of those suppliers are also struggling to cope with the pandemic.

Some equipment, such as transformers, turbine wheels, and circuit breakers, is manufactured overseas, and utilities began experiencing disruptions back in January, when factories in China’s Hubei province, where the novel coronavirus is believed to have originated, shut down. On 1 May, U.S. president Donald Trump issued an executive order banning the purchase of electrical-grid equipment that comes from a country designated as a foreign adversary or that might pose a risk of sabotage. The threat identified in the executive order “is nothing new, but it’s shining a flashlight on an issue that has existed over time,” says Massoud Amin, a professor of electrical and computer engineering at the University of Minnesota and a leader in the field of electric-utility security.

Aaronson plays down that threat, however, noting that while potential attackers might see a spiraling crisis as an opportunity to wreak mayhem, the same emergency puts utilities on heightened alert. “During things like a pandemic, our workforce, in particular our cybersecurity workforce, is hypervigilant,” he says.

Even as states continue to grapple with new coronavirus cases and try to figure how to safely resume activity, epidemiologists are warning about a second wave later this year, which could coincide with a new flu season and also with peak hurricane season in North America. Even as they brace for what’s to come, utilities are looking further ahead. Once the pandemic has passed, experts say, the lessons learned may help the industry not only prepare better for the next emergency but also improve its operations in good times. Some of the changes made to cope with the crisis, such as more remote work and a greater reliance on digital technology, could become permanent. “I don’t think we’re ever going to get back to what we considered normal before,” Kessler says.

A correction to this article was made on 22 July 2020.

About the Author

Neil Savage is a freelance science and technology writer based in Lowell, Mass., and a frequent contributor to IEEE Spectrum. His topics of interest include photonics, physics, computing, materials science, and semiconductors. His most recent article, “Tiny Satellites Could Distribute Quantum Keys,” describes an experiment in which cryptographic keys were distributed from satellites released from the International Space Station. He serves on the steering committee of New England Science Writers.

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