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Impacts of COVID-19 on the Grid System

image credit: CDC/ Alissa Eckert, MS; Dan Higgins, MAMS
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  • Apr 28, 2020

The corona virus continues to have large impacts on the global economy, despite some nations like China and New Zealand seeming to emerge successfully from the first wave of the pandemic.

However, the USA and UK are not weathering the storm so well and no lessening of the lockdown appears possible. Grid Operators and Utilities are having to function with very reduced staffing and uncertain demands for power. North American Electric Reliability Corporation (NERC) says in its Spring Assessment: "As pandemic mitigation and containment strategies continue, prolonged periods of operator sequestration and deferred maintenance on equipment increases the industry's risk profile and could exacerbate impacts to the BPS [Bulk Power System] during the summer months and potentially over the longer-term horizon,"

The document continues, “At this time, NERC has not identified any specific threat or degradation to the reliable operation of the BPS. To its credit, the industry continues to operate the BPS in a reliable and secure manner, the pandemic introduces a significant degree of uncertainly that is without precedent. Such uncertainty permeates an environment that is highly challenging even for the most prepared of industries.”

This has been evidenced by giants like Siemens and GE cutting back on their maintenance plans for power plants. These are a significant revenue-earner and will effect the bottom line. As most industrial and retail operations are closed, electricity demand is down. Power demand in New York City is down by around 20% for this time of year, according to New York Independent System Operator, which manages New York’s grid. Other operators are reporting similar drops – this loss of revenue and profitability will impact on balance sheets later this year.


Information and Guidance Available for the Power Industry

The Electricity Subsector Coordinating Council is a joint body which serves as the principal liaison between the federal government and the electric power industry. On 27 April it released the latest version of its COVID Resource Guide, which has invaluable advice for the whole industry.

The guide has some case studies, so operators are building up a picture of “best practice” when a skilled employee such as a control room operator starts to feel unwell. These include sending workers home (or into isolation) immediately, deep cleaning of the area by a specialized contractor, and remote operation or shut down of the control room. Testing of workers for COVID-19 is very important and supplies of PPE (Personal Protective Equipment) will be needed in future as there could well be more outbreaks of serious diseases. Unfortunately at present medical personnel are the major priority for testing and PPE. Resilience planning for future pandemics will need to be more comprehensive and utilities will need to stockpile appropriate masks, gowns and gloves. Temperature checking of people entering the plant to detect non-symptomatic carriers of the virus is a necessary precaution. It is now apparent that individuals can have the disease, and be contagious, without either feeling ill or showing other symptoms for at least 14 days, and possibly as long as 24 days. The Diamond Princess cruise ship had 322 of 621 people testing positive without showing any symptoms.


Cleaning and Disinfection Protocols

Currently there is no specific cleaning and disinfection protocol for COVID-19 but the CDC has a specification here: Thorough cleaning of surfaces and then disposal of clothing and washing is recommended. It seems that the virus is mostly transmitted person-to-person so thorough cleaning is a safety precaution, additional to social distancing, isolation of infected persons, washing hands and masking. If the CDC provides updated guidance Energy Central will be monitoring this and post any new information swiftly.

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