The New York Independent System Operator (NYISO), one of the nation’s nine regional transmission organizations (RTOs) that operate the power grid, now has some of its staff living at two of its control centers in suburban Albany, New York. The move comes as other RTOs and utilities consider having staff shelter-in-place at their respective operations hubs due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
Workers at NYISO facilities in Guilderland and Rensselaer, New York, moved into trailers at the two sites last week. Zachary Hutchins, a spokesperson for NYISO, on March 30 told POWER that there are “37 workers in total under sequestration, and this will continue for the foreseeable future. The 37 includes 33 grid operators and managers, two facilities staff, and two café personnel responsible for providing food for the sequestered staff.”
NYISO on its Twitter feed on March 27 said, “Our grid operators are making a tremendous personal sacrifice to maintain the essential electricity that health care workers need to care for their patients, and the lights stay on for all New Yorkers.”
Other RTOs have adjusted employee work schedules as part of their response to the coronavirus pandemic, with some asking staff to work longer shifts. PJM Interconnection, which covers 13 states and the District of Columbia, holds a weekly coronavirus briefing each Friday. Officials in their March 27 briefing said control room workers are transitioning to two 12-hour shifts. They also are cleaning work stations before and after each shift. There are now dedicated building entrances for control room operators, and established “staging centers” to eliminate person-to-person handoffs between shifts.
PJM said it could continue its pandemic response plans through the summer if necessary. It also said it is ready to provide on-site food and shelter should workers need to be sequestered.
Isolating Critical Workers
The California Independent System Operator (CAISO) has isolated critical employees at its control centers. “These measures, part of our pandemic response plan, are intended to protect our staff, customers, stakeholders and our community, and to fulfill our critical mission to reliably operate the grid, as important as ever during these trying times,” said Steve Berberich, CAISO’s president and CEO.
Vonette Fontaine, a spokesperson for CAISO, in an email to POWER on Monday said, “At the outset of the virus outbreak, we quickly set in motion internal protocols and procedures to minimize the risk of disruption to our operations. We ramped up internal precautions, such as closing buildings and offsite meeting venues to visitors, prohibiting non-essential business travel, increased cleaning of surfaces, and training staff to follow CDC recommendations for cleanliness and social distancing.”
She continued: “We are isolating control centers and grid operators from the rest of the building, and keeping the staffs at the two control centers separate. Because electricity providers are considered an essential service under the Governor’s [Gavin Newsom] stay-at-home order, the control centers are running at full staffing level. We have now added staff screening protocols, including taking temperatures before entering, and verbal and visual checks for possible symptoms.”
The Electric Reliability Council of Texas (ERCOT) is alternating shifts between its primary and backup control rooms, allowing for greater social distancing between grid operators. ERCOT also is cleaning its control room and associated areas between shifts, and each grid operator is also cleaning their individual work station and equipment again prior to the start of their shift. At present, only grid operators and cleaning crews are allowed inside ERCOT’s control rooms. Grid operators also have received a critical infrastructure verification letter allowing them to continue working on-site in the event a shelter-in-place order is mandated.
The New York Power Authority (NYPA), the largest state public power utility in the U.S., already has isolated critical workers at some of its power generation sites, including two large hydropower dams in upstate New York, along with the Blenheim-Gilboa pumped storage plant in Schoharie County. It also is isolating workers at two of its downstate fossil fuel plants, along with the regular and backup transmission stations in the Utica area.
‘Pretty Dramatic Step’
Richard Dewey, NYISO’s chief executive officer, told Bloomberg News the decision to house workers full time at the operations centers is “a pretty dramatic step. We’ve had this plan for years and hoped never to use it.” The workers are at NYISO’s main control site in Rensselaer, and a backup facility in Guilderland. The trailers each house two workers and include a kitchen and bathroom, and are heated by propane. Dewey told Bloomberg: “These are not fancy Winnebagos.”
Jon Sawyer, manager of grid operations at NYISO, is among the workers remaining on-site. He told Bloomberg: “The move-in was quite hectic but we’re now in a routine. We’re here for 12-hour shifts and we’re used to being here.”
Dewey has said National Grid and Consolidated Edison, two of NYISO’s member utilities, have the capability to run parts of the regional grid should that become necessary, in the event the on-site control room workers were to be infected with the virus.
Sidney Alvarez, a spokesperson for Con Edison, in a statement said, “We have procedures in place to ensure the reliable operation of the NYS electric grid during periods when the NYISO is unable to perform their function. In circumstances where the NYISO Control Room is inoperable for any reason (fire, cyber attack, unavailable operators due to a pandemic, etc.), Con Edison and National Grid assume the reliability functions on behalf of the NYISO. We perform exercises and drills to prepare for these emergencies annually and, as a result, are well-positioned to do so if the need arises.”
Plans Could Stay in Place Through Summer
Commonwealth Edison (ComEd) CEO Joe Dominguez recently said his group may keep its pandemic plan in place throughout the summer. The RTO serving Chicago and much of northern Illinois, like most other power industry companies, has much of its staff working from home.
The U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) on March 28 sent a letter to the Nuclear Energy Institute (NEI), outlining the NRC’s action during the pandemic. Of particular note is that the NRC is asking that nuclear power plants workers not work “more than 16 work-hours in any 24-hour period and not more than 86 work-hours in any 7-day period, excluding shift turnover.”
Entergy, which owns the Palisades nuclear plant in Michigan, last week said its pandemic plan for the site includes sequestration for critical employees, should it become necessary. Other plants also could implement that measure. The NRC, as part of its response to COVID-19, has said nuclear plants would need to shut down if they cannot be adequately staffed.
The NEI in a letter to Department of Energy Secretary Dan Brouillette on March 20 asked the federal government to ensure workers at nuclear power plants will have access to their plants and personal protective equipment during the 2020 spring and fall refueling outage seasons and beyond. All but two of the nation’s nuclear plants had scheduled planned outages this year, and those plans could be threatened by the coronavirus pandemic.
—Darrell Proctor is associate editor for POWER (@DarrellProctor1, @POWERmagazine).