Power Industry Pleads for Priority COVID-19 Testing, PPE for Mission-Essential Workers

The U.S. power sector is rallying together to implore state and local governments to treat sector-wide “mission-essential employees” with higher priority and ensure they have top-level access to testing and personal protective equipment (PPE) amid the intensifying COVID-19 pandemic.

In a four-page April 2 white paper presumably addressing federal leadership, the Electricity Subsector Coordinating Council (ESCC) underscored why it is critical that a subset of highly skilled energy workers must have testing and protection. Efforts to keep a limited pool of workers available to operate control centers and power plants must be a “top priority,” and giving the sector access to priority testing “would help isolate healthy operators so they can remain available,” it said.

Mission-essential workers who would need such testing could be identified based on their functional connections to maintain reliability; the amount of lead time required to train personnel; the limited pool of people with these qualifications; and the risks to regional reliability if this workforce is severely impacted, ESCC suggested.

Who Are Mission-Essential Power Sector Staff?

According to ESCC, mission-essential staff for whom priority access to testing is imperative include:

Non-Nuclear Power Plants. Control room operators and supervisors; operator technicians; and instrument and control (I&C) technicians. ESCC said that these specialized workers are typically isolated, physically secure, and cannot be shifted easily or trained in a short time.

Nuclear Plants. Licensed control room operators and designated supervision; non-licensed operators; radiation protection technicians; fire brigade members and designated supervisors; maintenance personnel (I&C, electrical and mechanical); armed security officers, armed responders, and other committed positions in the physical security plan; and emergency response organization positions described in the licensee’s emergency plan. “The training, licensing, and qualifications for nuclear power plant workers can be more stringent than for other sources of electric power generation. If any one of these positions goes unstaffed on a shift, a plant is at significant risk of triggering multiple Nuclear Regulatory Commission violations and a mandatory shutdown order from the federal government,” ESCC noted.

Electric transmission and distribution. Control room operators and supervisors, and reliability engineers. Because of the specialized nature of these jobs and the tools required to maintain energy grid operations, the limited number of employees with these qualifications requires a high priority for protection, ESCC said.

Natural gas distribution. Control center operators and facility operators. These workers—who are fully responsible for controlling the flow of natural gas, including ensuring system operational integrity, identifying abnormal operating conditions, and maintaining system security—have specialized training stipulated by pipeline safety regulations under the Department of Transportation.

Avoidable COVID-19 Fallout

The CEO-led industry group, which serves as a principal liaison between the federal government and the power industry during emergencies, also offered four real-life examples of how mission-essential employees have been affected by COVID-19, and why on-demand test kits could have mitigated exposure in workforce settings that are central to power reliability nationwide.

In one example, a generation unit was forced offline more than 22 days after a generation control room operator first showed mild symptoms, which were initially diagnosed as bronchitis. Though the employee practiced correct social distancing, the employee wasn’t tested for COVID-19 until 20 days after the cough began, and after a positive test, the operator’s two crewmates were also sent home for 14 days of self-quarantine, though neither had symptoms.

In a second example, because an IT security support engineer at a nuclear power plant could not get tested owing to mild coronavirus symptoms, three other engineers were forced into quarantine, owing to prolonged close contract with the afflicted employee. The incident left the plant without the key workers for 14 days. And in yet another incident, the positive COVID-19 result of a lineworker forced his entire six-member team, which made up 15% of the company’s workforce in the area, to self-quarantine at home.

The ESCC suggested that the potential fallout could be especially insidious because many electric and natural gas companies, public power utilities, and electric cooperatives consider a 10% infection rate in their service territory a trigger to begin sequestering mission-essential employees. Sequestration is already underway in certain areas, with employees and contractors living onsite at power plants and other facilities, it said, noting testing was especially important before and during sequestration of these crews, who must live in close quarters.

“By design, and in adherence to federally mandated reliability and cybersecurity regulations, control rooms are closed quarters, with several people working in tight proximity for 8-12 hours per shift,” it said. “These functions cannot be performed remotely. If one or more employees working a shift becomes infected, current guidance requires a 14-day quarantine of the entire shift, removing these operators from the workforce for at least two full weeks.”

So far, 37 workers from the New York ISO are already being sequestered or housed onsite, Paul Steidler, senior fellow from think tank The Lexington Institute, told POWER on April 7. “There are 85 workers from the New York Power Authority (a power producer). In addition, there are 200 from National Grid at electric control centers in Massachusetts and New York (Albany, Buffalo and Syracuse). PJM said yesterday it is considering on-site housing of workers. More information and related links are below,” he noted. Steidler also noted there are no limits or regulations that would limit sequestration. “In fact, [the Edison Energy Institute] says it has been preparing for this and governors can and should order it. This is about grid reliability but it is also about public safety and should be at the top of the list of actions that policy makers take,” he said.

Trade Groups Press States For Priority Testing

Echoing ESCC, in an April 3 letter addressed to eight state and local leadership groups, nine of the nation’s most significant organizations that represent a large slice of the power sector—electric and natural gas utilities, independent power producers, and nuclear generators— underscored the urgency and significance of the measure. Energy services are “indispensable” and that they must remain “safe and reliable throughout this unprecedented health emergency,” the groups wrote.

The trade groups include: American Public Power Association; Edison Electric Institute; Electric Power Supply Association; National Rural Electric Cooperative Association; Nuclear Energy Institute; American Gas Association; American Public Gas Association; International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers; United Brotherhood of Carpenters and Joiners; and Utility Workers Union of America.

The letter, which copied U.S. Energy Secretary Dan Brouillette, and Director of the Department of Homeland Security’s Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency Christopher Krebs, was addressed to Council of State Governments; International City/Council Management; National Association of Counties; National Association of Regulatory Utility Commissioners; National Conference of State Legislatures; National Governors Association; National League of Cities; and United States Conference of Mayors.

The trade groups acknowledged that many state, local, territorial, and tribal leaders have already adopted the Department of Homeland Security’s (DHS’s) March 28 guidance on Essential Critical Infrastructure Workers, an advisory that identifies workers that are required to ensure functional continuity as COVID-19 spreads in the U.S. While groups described the guidance as a “good first step” that has “allowed critical construction, maintenance, and power restoration projects to continue in many jurisdictions,” they asked for “additional assistance” that is consistent with a March 25 memo that the National Governors Association (NGA) sent its members about the challenges the energy industry is facing.

CISA’s March 28 guidance describes essential electricity industry workers as follows:

  • Workers who maintain, ensure, or restore, or are involved in the development, transportation, fuel procurement, expansion, or operation of the generation, transmission, and distribution of electric power, including call centers, utility workers, engineers, retail electricity, constraint maintenance, and fleet maintenance technicians- who cannot perform their duties remotely.
  • Workers at coal mines, production facilities, and those involved in manufacturing, transportation, permitting, operation/maintenance and monitoring at coal sites which is critical to ensuring the reliability of the electrical system.
  • Workers who produce, process, ship and handle coal used for power generation and manufacturing.
  • Workers needed for safe and secure operations at nuclear generation to include but not limited to, the broader nuclear supply chain, parts to maintain nuclear equipment, fuel manufacturers and fuel components used in the manufacturing of fuel.
  • Workers at renewable energy infrastructure (including, but not limited to wind, solar, biomass, hydrogen, geothermal, and/or hydroelectric), including those supporting construction, manufacturing, transportation, permitting, operation/maintenance, monitoring, and logistics.
  • Workers at generation, transmission, and electric black-start facilities.
  • Workers at Reliability Coordinator, Balancing Authorities, and primary and backup Control Centers, including but not limited to independent system operators, regional transmission organizations, and local distribution control centers.
  • Mutual assistance personnel which may include workers from outside of the state or local jurisdiction.
  • Vegetation management and traffic control for supporting those crews.
  • Environmental remediation/monitoring workers limited to immediate critical needs technicians.
  • Instrumentation, protection, and control technicians.
  • Essential support personnel for electricity operations.
  • Generator set support workers such as diesel engineers used in power generation including those providing fuel.

The NGA memo, revised on April 2, essentially outlines how governors can best support and protect the energy industry during the pandemic. Specifically, it urges governors to consider that critical energy infrastructure employees be identified and credentialed in the event of a shelter-in-place order; it says critical infrastructure workers may need priority access to testing, PPE, and cleaning supplies; and it suggests waivers for fuel carrier standards and commercial drivers licenses may be needed to move critical utility supplies.

In their letter, the trade groups describe mission-essential employees as “those who operate power generation facilities, staff the control rooms that serve as the “nerve centers” for transmission and distribution networks, and maintain the system and do emergency repairs as necessary.”

Treating them with higher priority is especially important when “workers must enter customers’ residences or businesses and as some of our members are going to the extraordinary measure of sequestering this workforce or decentralizing their operations to limit the impact a positive case would have on this category of workers,” they said.

Sonal Patel is a POWER senior associate editor (@sonalcpatel, @POWERmagazine).

Updated with comments from Paul Steidler from the Lexington Institute on total numbers of sequestered power sector workers. 


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