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Keeping the lights on and protecting workers during COVID-19

image credit: ID 7613743 © Tupungato |

New York City is now a warzone. Authorities have counted over 1,500 casualties over the past three weeks, however they warn that the true number is probably much higher. Many, many more are certain to parish in the coming days. The invisible enemy, COVID-19, has pushed the metropolis’ health-care system to the brink, forcing administrators to set up a make-shift hospital in Central Park. With many experts predicting that the virus will only peak in late April, the crisis will get worse—as hard is that is to imagine. 

New Yorkers, like half of all Americans now, have been ordered to shelter at home in hopes of mitigating COVID-19’s spread. While some kids may be enjoying the time off school, lockdown is an anxiety inducing nightmare for most. Locked away in  their apartments from friends and family, New Yorkers, many who are newly unemployed, watch on as their savings and most everything else that underpinned a sense of normalcy vanish. 

One of the only things that provides respite for those affected by the pandemic are the 21st century home comforts we’ve come to love. I’m talking about streaming services, online gaming, big stainless steel refrigerators, microwave ovens … the list goes on. All those things are powered by the grid, so it should come as no surprise that the Department of Homeland security designated electric utilities as “critical infrastructure”, indicating the industry’s special responsibility to keep things moving. 

But how do you keep things moving while protecting your workers and customers? New York’s grid operator, NYISO, is showing us how. 

Since March 24, 37 NYISO grid operators have been living and working in pairs, cut off from the rest of the world. (I realize 37 is an odd number, so I assume one is alone). Each pair is confined to a windowless trailer where they work and sleep. They are allowed to roam and exercise in the parking lot, but they can’t go any further. NYISO has done what they’ve can to make the workers comfortable—they’ve contracted a fancy caterer and hired dieticians and doctors who help maintain the crew’s physical health. Still, with no end date, you’ve got to imagine this experiment is psychologically draining for the workers.  

The operator has also isolated 28 operators, along with support staff, at its main and backup control centers. 

Rich Dewey, NYISO’s president, explained in a recent interview with NBC that this setup had been thought up before COVID: “We’ve had it in our plans as a hypothetical drill that we walk through every year to practice. But we’ve never actually had to put it into practice.”

Although NYISO’s could be currently defined as exceptional, I expect they will become the norm for North American operators within the month. As a rule of thumb, New York is about two weeks behind Northern Italy, and the rest of the country’s major metropolitan areas are just two weeks behind New York. Luckily, the industry as a whole is already preparing. Jim Robb, president the North American Electric Reliability Corporation explained his agency’s activity to NBC, saying: 

“Pretty much all of them have activated backup control systems. They’ve started to sequester their staff. They’re doing very thoughtful shift rotations to ensure they have time to deep-clean facilities between shifts.” 

It’s encouraging to see that the industry was relatively well prepared for this crisis. Moving forward, however, even more scrupulous disaster planning will be needed. Virologists have made it clear that we should expect corona viruses to continue to plague us this century. Electricity and other utilities, along with good public health systems, are what will save our societies from pandemonium. 


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