• April 20, 2020

    The Critical Work of the Power Sector During the Pandemic

    Chad Whiteman

When the President announced the America Works Together hashtag last week to highlight Americans helping one another during the coronavirus pandemic, the frontline healthcare workers came to mind first. Their tireless, selfless sacrifice is central to our nation’s ability to combat and overcome the pandemic during this historic time of need.  Quietly in the background, however, we are all getting a helping hand from other dedicated sectors of our society, the electric power sector.

Although not working on the front lines of the immediate healthcare challenge, the army of two million power sector workers who ‘keep the lights on’ have activated their response plans to provide reliable, around-the-clock electricity to support the brave battle of our frontline healthcare professionals. In addition to supporting frontline efforts, they are ensuring that the rest of us continue to enjoy the benefits of modern society from the comfort and safety of our homes. The Department of Homeland Security confirmed the importance of these dedicated professionals, naming the power sector part of the nation’s critical infrastructure that state and local jurisdictions should support to ensure the continuity of their operations. 

Unlike a response to severe weather, the COVID-19 pandemic necessitates social distancing, which requires a different type of deployment from traditional storm response protocols. Instead of convening staff, contractors, and government officials into large conference rooms for frequent meetings to coordinate restoration and public communications efforts, social distancing measures now require that these activities be done from afar, and often in isolation from the rest of society.

Without blinking, the electric power sector pivoted quickly to tailor its response strategy when the Electricity Subsector Coordinating Council (ESCC), which brings together leaders from both the power sector and the federal government, issued its fourth update to their comprehensive COVID-19 guidance, thereby staying at pace with the quickly evolving state of information and science. This document includes a myriad of strategies to ensure continuity of operations, from granting badges to identify employees who serve critical functions in electric power generation, to sequestering employees onsite who are ‘mission critical.’ 

With New York currently reaching its peak in the outbreak, National Grid employs 200 electric and gas workers in Syracuse and across its Northeast service territory who have voluntarily sequestered themselves at their job sites for a month at a time. They are staying in nearby RVs and have on-site catering services to provide their meals.  Similarly, the New York Power Authority is sequestering 85 workers at their power plants, and Southern California Edison is making plans to do the same. Other power companies are working to procure provisions and setting up cots to permit sequestration if needed, while others are screening workers for high temperatures or splitting operations between locations to minimize human contact. 

In addition to keeping the lights on, well known industry names such as AEP, Direct Energy, Dominion Energy, Duke Energy, Entergy, Exelon, FirstEnergy, Sempra Energy, and Southern Company are donating up to $17 million in emergency funds to support the needs of their customers and communities. Their efforts demonstrate their capacity to do even more while delivering an essential commodity during challenging times for our communities.   

With so many Americans now at home, access to reliable electricity is more important than ever. Fortunately, America’s energy utilities are delivering. When we think about all the “essential” employees who are making sacrifices to keep our country running, let us not forget those working every day to keep our lights on at our homes, hospitals, manufacturing facilities and businesses.