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Field workers rise in importance as wildfire season meets pandemic

image credit: Credit: David Kaintz/SCE

Utility field workers may face a big test this summer if storms or disasters such as wildfires cause blackouts at a time when millions of people are working from home and are away from the backup generators and microgrid installations that increasingly serve office blocks and business parks.

The challenge to restore power quickly by utility field workers may be particularly acute in places like California's Silicon Valley. Tech giants that include Google, Twitter and Facebook are keeping their offices closed for now in response to the Covid-19 pandemic.

A year ago, millions of customers lost power for days as PG&E and Edison International cut power to prevent their equipment from igniting wildfires during dry and windy weather. If utilities cut power again, then workers’ home offices could go dark and stay dark for days.

The Bloomberg news service said that Hewlett Packard has planned for this sort of scenario  and is implementing geographic redundancies with the ability to shift work among distributed teams.

In May, California regulators adopted new shutoff rules that will require regulated utilities to restore electricity within 24 hours after the weather clears. PG&E set its own goal of restoring service within 12 daylight hours after winds ease, and said it has nearly doubled the number of helicopters it will use to look for downed lines.

As part of its wildfire emergency response, Southern California Edison said it is prepared to deploy a fleet of Community Crew Vehicles across its service territory.The vehicles and their teams of utility field workers can be  dispatched during Public Safety Power Shutoff (PSPS) events to support affected customers.

Under the initiative, teams of utility employees are available at a drive-through and walk-up to help answer questions from the local community. Residents are offered “resiliency kits” that include a pre-charged solar-powered charger, flashlight/LED lightbulb, personal protective equipment, ice, bulk water, snacks and informational pamphlets.

The utility also may set up Community Resource Centers in affected areas in concert with local officials, independent living centers, nonprofits and various businesses. Similar to the vehicles, the centers are staffed to help answer outage questions.

SCE said it has identified about 40 centers that could be activated during a PSPS event in areas across Inyo, Kern, Tulare, Los Angeles, Orange, Ventura, Riverside, San Bernardino and Santa Barbara counties in southern California. The utility has about 50 employees on rotation to support the eight vehicles and centers with plans to train additional staff.

In addition, when an active wildfire is underway and SCE crews are deployed, the utility may also send its Mobile Command Center into the field. This is a fully functioning support center, including satellite, Wi-Fi, computer stations and rest area for staff.

Bloomberg reports that a year ago at this time, California largely was drought free. Now, almost 50% of the state is under drought conditions, with the driest areas across the northern part of the state. The result is an “above normal significant large fire potential,” according to the National Interagency Fire Center.

As a result, field workers and their variety of mobile devices and services may play an even more important role in supporting customers and economic activity should power disruptions occur and threaten the ongoing economic recovery.


David Wagman's picture

Thank David for the Post!

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