Energy Groups Make Plans to Deal with Coronavirus; EEI Issues Bulletin

The Edison Electric Institute (EEI), whose membership includes all investor-owned U.S. power companies, has told its members to prepare contingency plans for their operations due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Several U.S. grid operators already have announced measures designed to keep employees as safe as possible, while maintaining the reliability of the nation’s power supply.

The EEI in a bulletin to its members said companies could see as much as 40% of their employees become ill due to the coronavirus. The World Health Organization on March 11 declared the virus a global pandemic.

French utility EDF on Tuesday said three of its employees—one each at the Fessenheim, Belleville, and Cattenom nuclear plants—tested positive for coronavirus. EDF said several other workers who were in contact with those workers were told to self-isolate for at least the next two weeks.

“It is predicted that a large percentage of a company’s employees … could be out sick, quarantined, or might stay home to care for sick family members,” EEI said in the bulletin. EEI has canceled or postponed all meetings through April 30. “This was a difficult decision, but we feel it is best to err on the side of caution as this situation rapidly evolves,” the group said in a statement.

The U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) in a March 6 memo had called for its staff to limit travel, with the memo saying in part that staff should “begin reducing non-essential domestic travel, as appropriate. We will look at this issue and provide additional guidance as needed,” the agency said in the travel guidance distributed Friday via a DOE email list and obtained by Weapons Complex Morning Briefing.

NERC Issues Public Alert

The North American Electric Reliability Corp. (NERC), meanwhile, issued a public alert on contingency planning, and said it has asked “registered entities” to “report the status of their emergency pandemic plans.” Registered entities include power plants and transmission system control rooms. NERC requires those groups to have plans in place to allow operations during what are considered emergency situations.

NERC said responses on those plans are due March 20, and said it will file an informational report with the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission. NERC also warned power companies to “anticipate and prepare for coronavirus-themed opportunistic social engineering attacks,” which could disrupt the nation’s power grid. EEI officials said utilities already have noted an increase in phishing attempts and scams related to the coronavirus.

Groups responsible for the U.S. power grid are taking precautions, which include recommendations for staff to work remotely, and limit or eliminate travel. ISO New England on Wednesday in a statement said it is “closely monitoring” the virus. The group has banned all international business travel. It also is restricting employee travel to outside meetings through the end of April, telling workers to teleconference. It is restricting visits to its facilities and has canceled all tours.

PJM Interconnection has stopped all business travel, whether in the U.S. or abroad, for its employees. PJM, which operates the grid for much of the Mid-Atlantic region, said all stakeholder meetings and trainings would be held via teleconference for at least the next two weeks, with a re-evaluation after that. “We felt it was not prudent to have a concentration of grid operators in one place,” wrote PJM officials in an email to stakeholders.

Midcontinent ISO (MISO) in a statement said, “Our top priorities are the health and well-being of our employees and stakeholders and the reliability of the bulk electric system.” The group will hold all stakeholder meetings by web conference or conference call. Like PJM, it has stopped facility visits and has ended non-essential travel.

New York ISO in a March 9 news release announced an “indefinite suspension” of all in-person stakeholder meetings, adding that all stakeholder meetings will be “conducted via teleconference until further notice.”

Health Emergency

EEI told its members in the bulletin that preparing for a health emergency “is unique from other business continuity planning because it requires businesses to prepare to operate with a significantly smaller workforce, a threatened supply chain, and limited support services for an extended period.”

NiSource Inc., a Merrillville, Indiana-based utility that serves about four million gas and power customers across seven states, has implemented the Incident Command System, a Federal Emergency Management Agency protocol that allows businesses to more quickly work with government officials during an emergency, including a pandemic.

Houston, Texas-based CenterPoint Energy Inc., which supplies natural gas and power to regional customers, announced its has restricted all non-essential travel, and is banning all international business travel indefinitely.

Mark Ahlstrom, vice president of renewable resources for NextEra Energy Resources, speaking at the IREC Vision Summit in Washington, D.C., on Wednesday, said, “We’ve seen travel bans throughout the industry very quickly … the ISO [independent system operator], RTO [regional transmission organization] folks have really been the first to lock down because of their concerns about their control responsibilities and their liability.”

The California ISO (CAISO) ​has implemented temporary restrictions on meetings at both its offices and off-site facility, moving to teleconferences and webinars where possible. It also has canceled all tours and suspended non-essential travel by employees.

“Until more is known about the origin, transmission, and treatment of the virus, the ISO is taking necessary proactive steps to protect the health and safety of our staff, our stakeholders and our customers, while safeguarding the critical infrastructure of the power grid and energy market,” Steve Berberich, CAISO president and CEO, said in a statement. He said the measures may be an inconvenience, but that “continued reliable operation of the electrical system is our company’s first priority.”

The Electric Reliability Council Of Texas (ERCOT) in January released a redacted pandemic preparedness plan that identified which departments and managers are responsible for certain mobilization procedures, including maintaining supplies and tracking employee exposure to the virus. It also provided guidance about managing fear and how to respond if an on-site employee contracts the virus. Visitation restrictions to its facilities are in place until March 31.

Some U.S. utilities, including Seattle City Light in Washington, are working with customers to develop payment plans for those affected by the virus. The city, one of the most impacted by the virus thus far in the U.S., declared a city emergency due to COVID-19 earlier this month. The death toll from coronavirus was at 26 as of Wednesday in Washington state, with the number of confirmed cases approaching 300. The state Utilities and Transportation Commission has told its regulated companies to review their continuity and emergency operations plans in order to be prepared for operational changes.

Darrell Proctor is a POWER associate editor (@DarrellProctor1, @POWERmagazine). 

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