Federal regulators with oversight over U.S. power matters have issued a series of actions over recent weeks to respond to the potentially devastating impact that COVID-19, the new coronavirus, could have on North American power workforce operations and reliability. POWER will update this post regularly with COVID-19 response news and documents from the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC), the North American Electric Reliability Corp. (NERC), the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC), and the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA).

See the bottom of this article for a growing list of power sector resources that discuss pandemic response. 

FERC is a U.S. federal agency that regulates the transmission and wholesale electricity markets and natural gas in interstate commerce. NERC, which has been the interconnected bulk power system’s Electric Reliability Organization (ERO) since 2006, works to develop and enforce reliability standards and asses seasonal and long-term reliability. The NRC is an independent U.S. agency tasked with protecting public health and safety related to nuclear energy. The EPA is an independent agency, specifically an independent executive agency, of the U.S. federal government for environmental protection.

March 26–EPA Relaxes Non-Compliance Enforcement 

Under a new temporary policy that gives it more “enforcement discretion,” the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) said it does not expect to seek penalties for non-compliance with the agency’s rules that results from the COVID-19 pandemic.

The policy, which seeks to recognize that regulated facilities are facing a potential worker shortage, travel restrictions, and social distancing restrictions, will apply retroactively beginning on March 13, 2020. The EPA said it will “assess the continued need for and scope” of the policy on a “regular basis,” and update it as necessary.

The enforcement discretion in the temporary policy does not apply to any criminal violations or conditions fo probation in criminal sentences. It also does not apply to activities that are carried out under Superfund and RCRA Corrective Action enforcement instruments, and it does not apply to imports.

See the full story here: EPA Relaxes Noncompliance Enforcement During COVID-19 Pandemic

March 23—Power Industry–Led Council Mobilizes Strategic Working Groups

The Electricity Subsector Coordinating Council (ESCC), a group that serves as the principal liasion between federal government heads and the U.S. power sector during national-level incidents, said it has mobilized and established strategic working groups to identify and solve short-, medium-, and long-term issues facing the sector during the COVID-19 pandemic.

The groups are working on five current areas of focus are:

  1. Continuity of operations at control centers
  2. Continuity of operations at generation facilities
  3. Access to, and operations in, restricted or quarantined areas
  4. Protocols for mutual assistance
  5. Supply chain challenges.

ESCC is represented by three key power sector trade groups: Edison Electric Institute, a coalition of the nation’s investor-owned electric companies; the American Public Power Association, which represents public power utilities; and the National Rural Electric Cooperative Association, which represents the nation’s electric cooperatives.

The groups noted in statement that ESCC has been “planning for years” for an emergency like the current pandemic. It is currently holding high-level coordination calls twice a week with senior leadership from the Departments of Energy, Homeland Security, and Health and Human Services, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, FERC, and NERC.

Earlier this month, the ESCC released a COVID-19 resource guide, which is designed to help power industry leaders make “informed localized decisions in response to this evolving health crisis.” The guide is expected to evolve “as additional recommended practices are identified and as more is learned about appropriate mitigation strategies,” ESCC said.

March 20—NRC Is Developing an Enforcement Guidance Memorandum For All Operating Nuclear Plants

In a public teleconference on Friday afternoon, NRC staff and industry participants—including Entergy, NextEra, and representatives from the Nuclear Energy Institute (NEI)—discussed existing methods for operating nuclear power plants that would accommodate temporary regulatory changes associated with the national priority of limiting COVID-19’s spread.

NRC staff revealed they are developing an Enforcement Guidance Memorandum (EGM) that will generically apply to all operating plants. Staff is looking to issue the EGM on March 27. “Attachments to that memo will cover different issues such as work hour limits and staffing levels,” NRC Public Affairs Officer Scott Burnell told POWER

On the call, NEI Vice President of Generation and Suppliers Dr. Jennifer Uhle noted that nuclear plants have had pandemic response plans since 2006 to protect workers and ensure operational continuity. Responding to concerns from public participants about how the NRC would oversee a situation if a nuclear plant was unable to provide workers to safely operate a plant, Burnell said plants that cannot meet regulatory staffing requirements are required to contact the NRC. Ho Nieh, director of NRC Nuclear Reactor Regulation, added, “I hesitate to speculate, but the NRC has a variety of mechanisms to enforce its requirements, including shutting a plant down.”

Documents show that other questions from industry relate NRC notices of enforcement discretion (NOEDs), a special type of discretion that the agency may exercise under specific circumstances, and expedient approaches to manage 50.55a.

March 19—DHS Infrastructure Security Agency Identifies Essential Power Sector Workers

The Department of Homeland Security’s (DHS’s) Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency (CISA) has released an initial list of “essential critical infrastructure workers” to help decision-making entities at state and local levels determine how to ensure functional continuity as COVID-19 spreads in the U.S.

CISA Director Christopher Krebs said in a memorandum that the guidance was crafted in accordance with President Trump’s March 16 directive that says anyone who works in a “critical infrastructure industry,” as defined DHS, has a “special responsibility to maintain” a “normal work schedule.”

Version 1.0 of the “Guidance on the Essential Critical Infrastructure Workforce: Ensuring Community and National Resilience in COVID-19 Response,” contains several categories for essential workers. These include: healthcare/public health; law enforcement, public safety, and first responders; food and agriculture; water and wastewater; transportation and logistics; public works; communications and information technology; critical manufacturing; hazardous materials; financial services; chemical; defense industrial base; and energy.

The energy industry is split into three key subcategories: electricity, petroleum, and natural and propane gas workers. Essential electricity industry workers are:

  • Workers who maintain, ensure, or restore the generation, transmission, and distribution of electric power, including call centers, utility workers, reliability engineers and fleet maintenance technicians
  • Workers needed for safe and secure operations at nuclear generation
  • Workers at generation, transmission, and electric blackstart facilities
  • Workers at Reliability Coordinator (RC), Balancing Authorities (BA), and primary and backup Control Centers
    (CC), including but not limited to independent system operators, regional transmission organizations, and
    balancing authorities
  • Mutual assistance personnel
  • IT and OT technology staff – for EMS (Energy Management Systems) and Supervisory Control and Data
    Acquisition (SCADA) systems, and utility data centers; Cybersecurity engineers; cybersecurity risk management
  • Vegetation management crews and traffic workers who support
  • Environmental remediation/monitoring technicians
  • Instrumentation, protection, and control technicians.

Krebs said in his letter that these identified sectors and workers are not intended to be “an authoritative or exhaustive list of critical infrastructure sectors and functions that should continue during the COVID-19 response,” and he urged state and local officials to use their “own judgement” in using their authorities and issuing implementation directives and guidance.

March 19—FERC Issues Flexibility on Filing Deadlines

During a wide-ranging press conference, FERC Chairman Neil Chatterjee announced the commission appointed Caroline Wozniak as the FERC’s COVID-19 point of contact for all inquiries related to industry preparations and responses to the virus. It also advised industry to email PandemicLiaison@ferc.gov “to receive prompt responses.” Wozniak, who currently serves as the senior policy advisor in FERC’s Office of Energy Market Regulation, is backed by a team of 14 technical staff members representing each of FERC’s 12 program offices.

Noting industry is grappling with an “unprecedented public health emergency,” Chatterjee also urged other federal agencies and states to work closely with FERC to “ensure that Americans have access to reliable energy.”

FERC also announced a new series of pandemic response efforts, including a notice for extension of time to provide more flexibility on deadlines for certain required filings that are due on May 1, 2020. The filings include “non-statutory items required by the Commission such as compliance filings and responses to deficiency letters, and rulemaking comments, as well as forms required by the Commission, except for FERC Form No. 6,” which is designed to collect financial and operational information from oil pipeline companies. The deadline extension also will apply to filings required by entities’ tariffs or rate schedules, it said.

Significantly, the notice (Docket No. AD20-11-000) also says that entities may seek extensions for other deadlines and may seek waiver of FERC orders, regulations, tariffs, and rate schedules as appropriate. FERC said it has resolved to act “expeditiously” on those requests.

On March 19, Chatterjee also noted that FERC’s Office of Enforcement is postponing all previously scheduled audit sites visits and investigative testimony. FERC said it is “actively exploring” ways it “can lift burdens on the regulated community.” The Office of Enforcement will also “act expeditiously in granting extensions and waivers of compliance filings, forms and EQRs, as appropriate,” it said.

Finally, FERC unveiled a special COVID-19 landing page on its website to keep the public and stakeholders informed.

March 18—FERC, NERC Relax Certification Requirements

Recognizing that COVID-19 may have a substantial impact on the North American bulk power system workforce, FERC and NERC announced that the virus’s effects “will be considered as an acceptable basis for non-compliance with obtaining maintaining personnel certification,” as required by PER-003-2, for a period spanning March 1 and Dec. 31, 2020. The reliability standard currently requires that personnel performing reliability-related tasks at system operators are NERC-certified to have demonstrated minimum competency in a number of areas.

COVID-19 effects will also be considered an acceptable reason for “case-by-case non-compliance” with reliability standard requirements involving periodic actions that would have taken place between March 1 and July 31, 2020. NERC and FERC also urged regional entities to postpone required on-site audits, certifications and other on-site activities at least until July 31, 2020.

The entities said they recognize the “uncertainties regarding the response to and recovery from the coronavirus outbreak and will continue to evaluate the situation to determine whether to extend these dates.” For now, FERC and NERC want to “ensure all registered entities balance the concerns for the health and welfare of their workforce while staying focused on the mission of supplying power to consumers across North America,” they said.

March 11—NERC Issues Level 2 Alert

Responding to what it called a “rapidly developing situation,” NERC issued a public Level 2 alert on COVID-19 contingency planning. The action, which is not a mandatory obligation, offers North American bulk power system participants six recommendations that they should consider in response to pandemic.

The recommendations are:

1. Be Aware of the Evolving Threat. Develop and maintain suitable situational awareness of the current status of the COVID-19 spread and “credible future estimates of its spread and impacts.” Incorporate the U.S. Center of Disease Control’s (CDC’s) current travel advisories into event planning and travel arrangements.

2. Good Hygiene. Reinforce good personal hygiene practices across the workforce, and consider increasing cleaning and disinfecting surfaces and equipment that are routinely touched by multiple people. “Such areas may include control rooms, shared vehicles, conference rooms, and break areas.” NERC also recommended  implementing additional access restrictions, such as limiting visitors or non-essential meetings within these spaces, and segregation of crews on shift work schedules.

3. Business Continuity.Review and update existing business continuity plans to ensure they are “adequate to mitigate the direct impacts of a pandemic outbreak in the organization’s footprint that creates staffing constraints for reliability and business functions.” NERC urged participants to recognize that the pandemic may have the same impact on third-party contractors and other supporting human resources. It recommended that entities “validate or develop thresholds and triggers for implementing increased flexible workforce arrangements and for more disruptive mitigations,” and ensure these mitigations are in line with CDC, the Public Health Agency of Canada, or local health agency guidelines. It also urged entities to “consider testing or exercising business continuity plans against a pandemic scenario.”

4. Supply of Critical Components. Assess the organization’s resilience against disruption to the to the availability of critical components, materials, and support resources with supply chains originating or traversing significantly impacted regions globally. Disruptions at this time may include China and other southeast Asian nations, and the impact will likely involve “electronics, personal protective equipment and sanitation supplies, chemicals, and raw materials that are eventually transformed into goods directly purchased and used by North American asset owners and operators,” it said. NERC also warned that global transportation disruptions will have “ripple effects” on the availability of these goods, particularly for “just-in-time” logistics systems. It urged organizations to work with suppliers to understand current inventories of critical components throughout the supply chain as well as their anticipated use and resupply rates, and identify changed risks to routine, planned, and contingency operations to prioritize efforts appropriately.

5. Adjust Construction and Maintenance Needs. Assess the need to adjust planned construction and maintenance activity schedules to prioritize the most important projects. NERC urged entities to consider third-party support requirements and facility outage windows, understand consumption rates of spare parts and supplies required for both planned and contingency work, and adjust plans as needed to maintain safe and reliable operations.

6. Prepare for Opportunistic Attacks. Anticipate and prepare for COVID-19–themed “opportunistic social engineering attacks.” NERC warned the industry may see an uptick of spearphishing, watering hole, and other disinformation tactics, which are “commonly used to exploit public interest in significant events.” It urged entities to take steps to ensure continued visibility and maintenance of cyber assets in the event of staffing disruptions; ensure information and communications technology resources are appropriate to accommodate increased use of remote work arrangements consistent with business continuity plans, without compromising security; and consider conducting planned stress tests for these arrangements.

Along with its recommendations, NERC asked all registered entities to provide responses to a set of questions to gauge how they are preparing for COVID-19. Entities include balancing authors, distribution providers, frequency response sharing groups, generator owners and operators, planning authorities, reliability coordinators, resource planners, regulation reserve sharing groups and reserve sharing groups, transmission owners and operators, transmission planners, and transmission service provider functional groups.

Power Sector Resources for Pandemic Response

As part of POWER magazine’s in-depth coverage of the COVID-19 pandemic, its editors are curating a list of resources that may provide actionable information that may be helpful to how anyone involved in the world’s vast bulk power systems. The full list can be found here: Power Sector Resources for Coronavirus Pandemic Response

Please write to editor@powermag.com if you feel resources should be added to this page.

Stay up-to-date on POWER‘s COVID-19–related coverage here.

POWER staff (@POWERmagazine)