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Easing of pandemic restrictions, summer weather may pose new challenges for utilities

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Peter Key's picture
Freelance Writer, Editor, Consultant Self-employed

I've been a business journalist since 1985 when I received an MBA from Penn State. I covered energy, technology, and venture capital for The Philadelphia Business Journal from 1998 through 2013....

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  • May 27, 2020
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Like every other business in the country, electric distribution utilities have had their normal operations disrupted by the novel coronavirus pandemic.

So far, however, they’ve successfully kept that disruption from being felt by the general public. That’s because, like other organizations in the electric power industry, they’re used to planning how to keep their customers’ lights on under all kinds of conditions and while the pandemic has posed challenges, they’ve been able to take the steps necessary to meet them.

The summer, however, utilities could face a different set of challenges. For one thing, they will have to determine how quickly they can return their operations to something more closely resembling normal as the restrictions put in place to stall the pandemic are lifted. They also will need to be poised to alter their plans if an increase in the spread of the coronavirus causes the lifting of restrictions in their territories to be slowed or reversed.

Additionally, utilities will have to deal with something that few of them outside southern California have had to deal with during the pandemic so far — heat waves. Some people fear that if many workers are still toiling from home when the summer heat arrives, the air conditioning they require to stay comfortable could strain distribution grids in ways they have never been strained before.

By and large, utilities have been able to cope with the restrictions imposed due to the pandemic, as well as the load shifts the restrictions have caused.

One reason is that utilities are used to planning for and dealing with all kinds of contingencies and while the pandemic has created an unusual operating environment for them, they’ve been able to adopt to it. As essential businesses, they have the freedom, despite whatever restrictions may be in place in their territories, to do whatever they need to in order to maintain their grids. Even so, they've had to instruct their workers to follow social distancing protocols and educate their customers to maintain a proper distance from their field workers. They've also prioritized their work differently to account for the fact that some tasks that are routine under normal circumstances were far from routine with the restrictions in place and therefore, if they didn’t need to be done immediately, were better postponed until the restrictions were eased.

Now that the restrictions are being eased, utilities are having to decide which policies they implemented as a result of the pandemic should be changed and which should remain in place. They also are having to decide which tasks they can do now that they couldn’t do when the restrictions were in place and the best way to prioritize those tasks.

Avista is in the process of doing that now. The electric and gas utility's territory includes parts of Idaho, Oregon and Washington, which was the site of one of the first COVID-19 outbreaks in the United States. When it realized the pandemic had hit, it swiftly developed and implemented a response plan, according to Ashley Mann, a program director at Voxus PR, which represents Avista.

On March 20, Mann said in an email, Avista began focusing its operations “primarily on necessary or time-sensitive field work, outage response, natural gas calls, compliance work and other projects determined on a case-by-case basis to be appropriate and safe to complete.” In early May, with the pandemic restrictions easing in its territory, Avista “began to resume certain utility work, primarily field operations” as safety permitted, Mann said. As it plots a course back to what will pass for normal for a while, the company continues to maintain “its focus on health, safety and critical utility operations and an approach to resuming certain work that is measured, gradual and strategic,” she said.

One thing that made responding to the pandemic easier for utilities was the time of year it struck. Power demand in much of the country is highest in the summer and winter, when temperatures are the most extreme. In spring, power demand is lower and therefore there is plenty of excess generation, transmission and distribution capacity, giving the electric power industry plenty of breathing room to make adjustments in response to the pandemic.  

Another thing that made responding to the pandemic easier for utilities was that the restrictions put in place by to deal with it didn’t have a big effect on loads. For example, although Peco, which serves Philadelphia and its Pennsylvania suburbs, saw a decline in demand due to the closing of non-essential businesses and reduced power usage by consumer-focused businesses, such as restaurants, which remained open, that was offset somewhat by increased residential usage, Kristina Pappas, a senior communications specialist with the electric and gas utility said in an email. The result for many grid operators was a later morning peak and weekday loads that otherwise looked pretty much the way weekend loads used to before the pandemic hit.

At least a few people think that could change this summer if large numbers of office workers are still toiling from home when heat waves hit.

One is Lawrence Orsini, the founder and CEO of LO3 Energy, a San Francisco startup whose technology platform enables consumers to buy and sell locally produced energy, thereby helping to optimize the grid at the community level. In a Grid Professionals Group post last month, Orsini wrote that while the electrical infrastructure that serves office buildings is built for handling large loads, the infrastructure that serves suburban homes typically is not. As a result, pumping a lot of power through it to keep people working from home comfortable during a heat wave could damage it because it won’t have a chance to cool down during the day as it normally does when those people are working in their offices.

The grid serving many residential areas of New York City could also face the same fate, Yury Dvorkin, an assistant professor at New York University’s Tandon School of Engineering, told The Daily Beast.

“What’s going to happen this summer, if we have stay-at-home orders, if we have consumption which the grid was not designed to accommodate, it will push the system to its limits,” Dvorkin said.

Not everyone shares Orsini's and Dvorkin's views. The Daily Beast article also cites Peter Fox-Penner, the director of the Boston University Institute for Sustainable Energy, who told the website that although pandemic restrictions carrying into summer could strain the grid, demand response programs could help alleviate the strain.

That's especially true of demand response programs that target residential customers, such as the one recently launched by Consumers Energy. The Jackson, Mich.-based electric and gas utility is providing free Google Nest thermostats to up to 100,000 households that enroll in its Smart Thermostat Program, whose members agree to let an energy services company named Uplight remotely control the thermostats for up to four hours a day on no more than 14 of the hottest days of the year. Consumers Energy says program members won't see their homes become uncomfortably hot.

Although the Smart Thermostat Program could help Consumers Energy reduce its residential air conditioning load in a summer in which doing so could be very important, it's not a response to the pandemic. Instead it's part of a long-term effort by the utility to eliminate coal generation and achieve net-zero carbon emissions.

 

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