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Everyone's First Rodeo: Electric Utilities and COVID-19

image credit: Burbank Water and Power
Lincoln Bleveans's picture
Executive Director -- Sustainability & Energy Management Stanford University

Global Energy, Water, and Sustainability Executive | Thought Leader, Speaker, and Writer | Strategy, Planning, Project Development, Operations, M&A, and Transformation | Team Builder...

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  • Mar 30, 2020 4:18 pm GMT

I stay at work for you. You stay home for us.

The world owes the health care profession a (virtual) high-five. They are rushing into danger — and staying in — while the rest of us retreat to our sofas and televisions. As we should: stopping COVID-19 means holing-up in our homes and denying the virus a chance to spread. So crank up the coffeemaker, microwave some popcorn, and let’s see what’s on Netflix. 

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Okay, I’m nourished, comfortable, and entertained. I can ride this out …

Plug it in, switch it on: social distancing is predicated on reliable electric service, from powering our televisions and internet to charging our devices to keeping our homes comfortable and well lit. Now imagine for a moment that the electricity wasn’t there: sitting in the dark, food going bad in the refrigerator, no heating or air-conditioning, phones dying, and a dark TV screen staring back at us. For weeks or months. 

I don’t even want to think about it …

COVID-19 is the first global pandemic of the Age of Electrification. If that doesn’t give you pause, it should. Remember when “charging” meant buying something with a credit card? That was then. Today’s economies and societies are intensely electrified and becoming more so every day. Whether its public safety or education or business or communication or shelter, electricity is indispensable. Even fossil-fueled transportation grinds to a halt without electricity to manufacture vehicles, pump gasoline, and operate traffic lights. In the Age of Electrification, electric power is the lifeblood of our economies and societies.

So we utilities plan. And plan. And plan, searching for and preparing for that next contingency. But hands-on experience with global pandemics? The Spanish Flu was a century ago. Further, planning for a generic pandemic is quite different than operating in the unique circumstances of this specific pandemic. Finally, safe and reliable electric service requires a huge variety of specialized skills which are difficult or even impossible to substitute. When it comes to COVID-19, it’s everyone’s first rodeo. So how do we keep that electric lifeblood flowing, safely and reliably?


Burbank Water and Power

Like health care providers, utility personnel are still at work and out in the community. Here at Burbank Water & Power, those who can work from home are doing so. That’s prudent. But those of us who must be physically present — power plant and power system operators, power line crews, accounting and customer service staff, and administrators and executives alike — are at their desks, in their bucket trucks, and in their control rooms. That’s necessary, pandemic or not.

But not all of those personnel will stay well and productive through the pandemic. (Or even most, depending on the forecast.) Maintaining that specialized capacity means internal quarantines, from rotating teams on alternate days to conference call meetings within the same building to 24/7 shift hand-offs through panes of glass. It means hygiene, hygiene, and more hygiene. And it is a constant process of asking “what-if” to be ready (or as ready as possible) for not just an individual getting sick but the possible infection of that person’s entire crew. Pandemic or not, the Age of Electrification means that the power must flow, safely and reliably.

So spare a virtual high-five for those who keep the lights on, enabling a comfortable retreat to self-quarantine. And please stay home. In the meantime, we’ve rushed in and we’re staying in. We wouldn’t have it any other way.


Lincoln Bleveans is a 25-year veteran of the global electric power industry. He is currently an executive at a progressive, vertically integrated municipal electric and water utility in Southern California. He is a frequent speaker and writer on energy, sustainability, resilience, and leadership and tweets regularly @bleveans. The views, thoughts, and opinions expressed in the text belong solely to the author and not necessarily to the author’s employer, organization, or other group or individual.

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Matt Chester's picture
Matt Chester on Mar 30, 2020

COVID-19 is the first global pandemic of the Age of Electrification. If that doesn’t give you pause, it should. Remember when “charging” meant buying something with a credit card? 

It's been really interesting to see the impact. Of course power is more than essential to keep people healthy and alive. Not only medical equipment, but needs like keeping food fresh as long as possible so people aren't going out more often for groceries, keeping them entertained so the temptation to break social distancing isn't too great, keeping people connected so other essential businesses can find ways to operate with remote workers. Textbooks will undoubtedly be written about these weeks, and the utility business no doubt will warrant a hefty chapter. 

Lincoln Bleveans's picture
Lincoln Bleveans on Mar 31, 2020

"Textbooks will undoubtedly be written about these weeks, and the utility business no doubt will warrant a hefty chapter."  Spot-on, Matt!  

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