Utilities Plan to Keep Key Staff Housed at Power Plants

U.S. electric utilities and other energy companies are preparing to have key personnel remain at power plants and operations centers to ensure the facilities remain online during the coronavirus pandemic.

The federal government considers power plants part of the nation’s critical infrastructure. The U.S. Department of Homeland Security (DHS) is responsible for working with power plant operators, as well as owners of gas pipelines and other energy delivery companies, to maintain their operation during emergency situations. The DHS on March 19 issued guidance to government and business officials about activating measures to protect critical staff members from COVID-19.

“When continuous remote work is not possible, businesses should enlist strategies to reduce the likelihood of spreading the disease,” the DHS said in its memo. “This includes, but is not necessarily limited to, separating staff by off-setting shift hours or days and/or social distancing.”

Industry trade groups, including Edison Electric Institute, which represents the nation’s investor-owned utilities, on March 20 said facilities have been stockpiling supplies, include portable beds and food, to enable staff to remain onsite for weeks if not months.

Maria Korsnick, president of the Nuclear Energy Institute, told Reuters that some U.S. nuclear plants are “considering measures to isolate a core group to run the plant, stockpiling ready-to-eat meals and disposable tableware, laundry supplies and personal care items.”

Work is continuing at the Plant Vogtle nuclear construction project after Georgia Power Co. announced that some of the workers at the site were being tested for the coronavirus. The Aiken Standard newspaper reported Wednesday that two workers at the site, where two new reactors are being built, have tested negative for the virus. The paper said a spokesperson for Georgia Power, one of the project’s four joint owners, said test results for six other workers were still pending as of Wednesday.

There have been as many as 9,000 workers at the construction site, including office workers and administrators, along with Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) safety inspectors, in addition to the construction staff. Southern Co. CEO Tom Fanning on Friday said the project is moving forward and has not had any major slowdowns due to the pandemic. Southern Co. is the parent of Georgia Power.

The NRC in its latest COVID-19 update said the agency is “Communicating regularly with nuclear plants to discuss current activities and future plans including plant staffing, medical screening, reductions in non-essential maintenance work, and other matters. NRC regulations set reactor operator and security staffing guidelines. Nuclear power plants also have plans to maintain appropriate staffing under adverse conditions. The NRC will require plants to shut down if they cannot appropriately staff their facilities.”

‘Unanswered Questions’

Roy Palk, president and CEO of New Horizons Consulting, which advises energy companies, told POWER on Friday, “There are a lot of unanswered questions, because this is not the model everyone is used to working with. Now instead of flying to meetings, I’m preparing for online meetings.”

Palk, a past president and CEO of East Kentucky Power Cooperative, said he understands why utilities and power plant operators need to prepare to keep the lights on, including keeping staff housed at generation facilities. “These operators have to have a license to operate, they’re highly skilled, highly trained. They have to be certified,” he said. “The type of generation we have today, the mixture of other kinds of power into the grid, we have solar, we have wind. These individuals need to be on the job, they need to be protected, they need to be healthy. They have a big obligation the public.”

Scott Aaronson, vice president of security and preparedness at EEI, told Reuters that “The focus needs to be on things that keep the lights on and the gas flowing.” Aaronson said “companies are already either sequestering a healthy group of their essential employees or are considering doing that and are identifying appropriate protocols to do that.”

Palk said he would advise plant operators be prepared for a lengthy period of keeping critical staff onsite. “I’d probably be looking at eight weeks, at least,” he said. “If this were to go beyond where the supply chain for materials and goods are strained, will these plant operators get any kind of priority? They have to have food, maybe medicine, supplies of all kinds, because they’re operating in a critical mode. I’ve always thought to some degree or another, that utility workers should have first responder status. Power company employees, raising that status, should be something [government officials] should look at.”

Many Staff Working Remotely

Most U.S. utilities already have much of their staff working remotely, after closing their offices and customer service centers. EEI in a recent memo to its members said as many as 40% of utility workers could be directly impacted by the coronavirus, either through personal illness, being placed in quarantine, or called away to care for other sick family members.

Neil Nissan, a spokesperson for Duke Energy, told POWER on Friday that “Like other companies, we’re focused on the health and safety of our teammates and have implemented steps to protect them at all locations, particularly at critical-operational facilities like power plants. We have not taken the steps … like sequestering them. However, we’ve instituted additional worker screening measures [like temperature checks] at generating and other critical facilities. We’ve also initiated split operations for critical operator functions between primary and alternate locations, as possible, to limit potential exposure and maintain operations.

“We’ve also implemented a no-visitor policy, increased CDC disinfectant cleanings between work shifts and discouraged carpooling,” Nissan said. “We’ll continue to closely monitor developments and adjust our processes as needed to ensure reliable service while protecting the safety and health of our workforce.”

Mark Stutz, a spokesman for Tri-State Generation and Transmission in Colorado, said the membership cooperative “is intensely focused on safely delivering power to our member distribution systems and ensuring the reliability of the regional power grid, protecting our employees’ health, and supporting state and national directives to stem the spread of the novel coronavirus in our communities.

Stutz told POWER: “Our electric system is operating normally to deliver power to our members, and well-planned procedures are in place to protect the health of our employees and our communities. With the snow and wind across the region yesterday [Editor’s note: a winter storm hit Colorado on Thursday], our system continues to operating normally, and operations staff and transmission maintenance crews continue to do their important work to maintain the reliability of the system. Tri-State prepares for a wide range of scenarios that could impact our business and has implemented extensive business continuity plans to ensure our operations are sustained. Tri-State has also activated established programs and procedures to mitigate the impacts of pandemics and protect our employees from communicable diseases.” He said Tri-State is “ensuring our critical generation, transmission and operations teams are staffed and have the resources needed to safely operate our power system.”

EEI’s Aaronson this week told the Los Angeles Times that the power sector began designing plans to deal with a pandemic more than 10 years ago, after the outbreak of the severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS) in 2003. Planning also took place during the H1N1 influenza outbreak in 2009. Aaronson said those plans are being implemented, and told the Times power generators are having conference calls at least twice a week with federal officials from DHS, the Department of Energy, and other agencies.

“By planning for a lot of different worst-case scenarios and a lot of potential contingencies, I have confidence that the sector will be prepared to respond no matter how this evolves,” Aaronson told the Times.

No Service Shutoffs

The California Public Utilities Commission (CPUC) this week said there would be no service shutoffs to any energy, water, sewer, and communications companies under its jurisdiction. The agency said that directive could last for a year. The state’s largest utilities, including Southern California Edison, Pacific Gas & Electric, and the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power (LADWP), already had said they would not disconnect service to any customer for non-payment, a step also taken by most U.S. utilities.

“Many people are concerned about the health and safety of themselves and their loved ones. They should not also have to worry about their essential utility services being shut off for non-payment because they are unable to report to work due to illness, quarantine, or social distancing,” CPUC President Marybel Batjer said in a statement.

Marty Adams, general manager of LADWP, told the Los Angeles City Council at a meeting March 17 that the utility would reconnect service to customers who have had their water or power shut off in the past month. He told council members the utility is “planning for the worst,” including the possibility many employees could become ill and unable to work.

“If we don’t have much of a workforce, we’ll go into complete remedial service mode, making sure that our field crews are able to keep the water on and the lights on,” he said.

Special Circumstances for Gas Industry

Palk noted that those in the natural gas industry have particular circumstances to consider, such as the need to enter a home to shut off the gas supply in the event of a leak. Karen Harbert, president and CEO of the American Gas Association, which represents more than 200 local energy companies that deliver natural gas across the U.S., in a March 17 news release said, “Natural gas utilities are consistently focused on delivering energy safely and reliably, and that same spirit of safety can be seen today as the nation faces challenges related to COVID-19 … natural gas utilities have put in place important safeguards and we remain committed to these practices to keep communities safe—these include heightened levels of hygiene and protection for employees who may need to enter a customer’s home.”

She continued: “While no one can ever fully prepare for a crisis like we are experiencing, the industry regularly plans, prepares and drills for extenuating circumstances, and that preparation pays off for our customers, especially first responders and critical facilities.”

Neil Chatterjee, chairman of the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC), on Thursday named Caroline Wozniak as the commission’s point of contact for all industry inquiries regarding the impacts of “their COVID-19 preparations and responses on their FERC-jurisdictional activities.” FERC in a news release said, “FERC’s Office of Enforcement is postponing all previously scheduled audit site visits and investigative testimony” … and plans to “act expeditiously in granting extensions and waivers of compliance filings, forms and EQRs, as appropriate.”

More Impacts Could be Coming

Utilities and power providers also could see more impacts as government leaders extend shelter-in-place orders, or enact new measures to promote social distancing.

Illinois Gov. J.B. Pritzker on Friday was set to announce a “shelter in place” order for the entire state. Some Chicago suburbs issued similar orders earlier this week. Southwest Airlines on Friday canceled many of its flights into and out of Chicago’s Midway Airport days after federal authorities closed the airport’s control tower after technicians tested positive for the coronavirus.

New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo on Friday said all non-essential workers in that state should remain at home. He said only essential businesses should remain open. The governor called it “New York state on pause. We need everyone to be safe, otherwise no one can be safe. This is the most drastic action we can take.” Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Wolf has taken similar action.

Arizona Gov. Doug Ducey on Thursday activated the National Guard to help the state deal with the crisis. Los Angeles officials on Thursday issued a “Safer at Home” order, closing all non-essential businesses. Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti has ordered all residents to stay inside their homes and limit all nonessential movement.

“The only people who should be leaving home home and going out are those whose jobs are critical to the safety, the health and security of the city,” Garcetti said.

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

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