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Pandemic-altered restoration methods working so far, but big challenges may await

image credit: ID 109756488 © Warongdech Thaiwatcharamas |

This year, when hurricanes hit, there may be fewer utility workers going mobile to respond to them.

The reason, of course, is the novel coronavirus pandemic. Utilities may be less willing to send their workers to help sister utilities restore power if they fear that doing so would leave them shorthanded if storms were to hit their territories.

"I’m not sure we’re going to get the same level of response from across the country” after a hurricane, Florida Power & Light President and CEO Eric Silagy said about three weeks ago at an event meant to show the public how FPL plans to handle storm response during the pandemic, according to Treasure Coast Newspapers.

Utilities have been making plans on how to deal with the problems posed by the pandemic since it struck. Early on, the Edison Electric Institute and its members, the country’s investor-owned utilities, worked through the Electricity Subsector Coordinating Council to develop a resource guide to ensure utilities had the processes and procedures in place to keep their workers safe while keeping power flowing or restoring it after a storm. They revised the guide to reflect the experiences of the utilities affected by the storms that hit 21 states on Easter weekend and since have made more revisions, including adding a section on planning considerations for contact tracing during mutual assistance.

One practice in the guide that utilities in the states most likely to be hit by hurricanes are following is changing their staging methods. For example, Alabama Power told that for major storm restoration efforts along the Gulf Coast it normally puts as many as 3,000 workers in staging areas where they can eat, rest, and have access to equipment, fuel and supplies. This year, it said, it’s centralizing its core restoration operations and fueling and using fewer staging areas so the workers in them can practice social distancing. Alabama Power also said that when it uses outside crews in its restoration efforts, it will electronically brief them and provide instructions to them before they join the efforts and will house them separately once they do.

Florida utilities told Sunshine State regulators in late May that they are making similar changes, according to News Service of Florida. Instead of having single staging areas for each region where as many as 2,000 logistics workers meet and sleep under giant tents, they’re planning to have multiple staging areas housing 500 workers. Additionally, rather than mobile sleepers that can hold from 36 to 42 people, they’re planning on using smaller ones and hotels. And, rather than feed the workers en masse, they’ll provide them with single-serving food packaging. Those changes will make restoration efforts more expensive, the utilities said.

Duke Energy was able to test its new restoration methods after the Easter weekend storms. Instead of gathering a lot of workers in one facility, it operated a virtual storm response center in which customer service agents worked from home, Jeff Brooks, a Duke Energy spokesman, told Duke also required its crew members to travel with their own personal protective equipment, housed them in single hotel rooms rather than having them double up, screened them for COVID-19 symptoms before deploying them and allowed them to request a COVID-19 test at any time while they were on assignment.

So far, the new restoration methods developed in response to the pandemic haven’t slowed restoration times. For example, Entergy New Orleans said that when the pandemic struck, it began to train its field workers on how to perform their tasks while staying six feet apart, to wear face coverings when they’re in close proximity to each other, and to sanitize trucks and equipment before and after use. Despite that, when Tropical Storm Cristobal hit New Orleans last month, the utility said it was able to keep outages to a minimum and restore all outages a day after the storm struck.

Full-fledged hurricanes, however, will pose a bigger challenge. Not being able to get as many workers from other utilities as they used to will slow restoration time for utilities. Having multiple smaller staging areas rather than one big one will have the same effect because it will “lead to less productivity,” Silagy told Treasure Coast Newspapers.

Workers also could be slowed because they’ll have to supply their own sugar buzz rather than get it from grateful customers. In a press release it put out in advance of the Easter storms, Georgia Power listed some ways its customers could help keep its field workers safe, including staying back at least six feet from them and giving them a wave or a thumbs up rather than cookies or other food.

When all else fails, however, some of the workers may be able to turn to their mothers. Entergy New Orleans said that when its storm restoration crews began gearing up for Tropical Storm Cristobal early last month, one crew member’s mom pitched in by sewing masks out of flame-retardant T-shirts for her son and his co-workers.

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