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Maintaining Utility Reliability and Customer Service in a Health Crisis

image credit: Burns & McDonnell

The COVID-19 health pandemic has dramatically changed the world around us as large portions of the economic and social activities have shut down or been curtailed. Some services people typically take for granted are absent.

Luckily, the supply of reliable electric power to our homes and business is not one of them.

Expectations for utilities have not changed. Safe, reliable power is still needed and vital to our well-being. If equipment fails or a storm comes through, customers still expect speedy restoration of service. If a new house is built, people still expect the power to be connected. There is no concession in terms of the reliability of the system and access to service that customers expect.

In the face of these contrasting values, how do utilities continue to manage and maintain the same reliability and service their customers have come to expect? The good news is that utilities are already accustomed to managing disruptions. Granted that the present circumstances are unique, electric utilities have extensive experience working through rapidly evolving scenarios like tornadoes, floods, wildfires and other weather and system fault events with huge impacts on electrical infrastructure.

The catch is retaining the people power to get through those challenges. It is commonplace for companies to say their most valuable resource is their people, but the pandemic has complicated utilities’ ability to access that resource. Reports suggest that as much as a quarter of some companies’ workforce is unavailable because individuals exhibiting any symptoms attributable to COVID-19 such as a cough or fever must self-isolate. Like the general population, the rest of the workforce is likely equally exposed to the anxiety of catching the virus and dealing with the rapidly changing world around them.

So how can utilities navigate these unique circumstances while meeting unyielding expectations? Continuing to operate, maintain equipment and do repairs are the most important aspect of reliability. Several measures can help mitigate the challenges to continuous service.

In the Office

It begins with putting communications and education in place so employees and customers know the company’s direction and how it is evolving. This should come directly from senior management. Employees should have a clear understanding of what is expected and the rules of engagement — how routine activities should adapt to social distancing guidelines. Who can work remotely from home, who needs to be at the office and who needs to be in the field? For example, the roles of control room operators and maintenance crews are critical to day-to-day operations and their functions can’t be performed from home so they need to be in their native workplace with enhanced safety guidelines.

As part of the crisis response, leadership should carefully evaluate and establish which projects, operations and resources are critical to reliability and servicing of customers, delineating priorities and clarifying whose presence is essential. Capital and resources should be re-prioritized in favor of projects that directly impact reliability of the system and address customer needs in the near term and delays those that can be put on the back burner while the containment efforts are in effect. Non-critical testing activities that involve multiple workers working together should be delayed.

Management should also see that appropriate personal protective equipment (PPE), sanitizers, masks and other essentials are made available. Enhanced frequency of cleaning and sanitizing routines in office spaces might be advisable. Some companies are doing health screening and staggering entry at entrance points to maintain appropriate physical distancing. Having an employee self-wellness checklist in place and knowing when additional screening is prudent are useful tools. Having workplaces sanitized on a daily basis to minimize the viral spread from touching surfaces is another good measure.

In the Field

Naturally, operations, maintenance and repair activities require keeping some workers in the field. There are several innovative approaches and technologies than can help minimize the field presence. The use of augmented/virtual reality-equipped cameras and drones allow others to view the site remotely.

The ability to allow portions of the workforce that do not need to be on-site or are not performing critical roles to work from home depends on access to adequate tools to continue being effective. Companies that have robust remote access tools that rely on cloud computing in place have an advantage; others can use this time to identify gaps in their stack and review best practices so they can better position themselves for future disruptions.

Daily health screening of workers as they enter the work site and offer self-screening checklist so workers who are starting to exhibit symptoms know that they need to self-isolate. Communicate guidelines that limit presence on-site to necessary personnel, and social distancing is observed during daily tail meetings or safety watch. Arrange for tablets for site data collection, inventory control and for accessing drawings so use of paper is reduced and virus spread via paper handling is minimized. Hand-washing and sanitization facilities should be accessible with daily sanitization of washroom facilities and common areas.

Supply Chain

There have been major disruptions to supply chains, especially from regions severely impacted. Utilities can mitigate by having a supplier mix with geographically diverse sourcing locations and so future health pandemics, but also border restrictions or trade disputes, have a lesser impact.

Customer Care

Communicating with your customers during such times is even more important to show your concern for their well-being and any steps the utility is taking to minimize disruption to its service — as well as any flexibility the utility is offering to defer bills, as many customers may be temporarily out of work due to the government-mandated action on business closures, etc. Offering additional channels of communication such as through apps and chatbots can reduce burden on traditional communication channels but also offers flexibility so customers are not tied to a phone while on hold.

In Summation

Communications are at the core of an effective response. At the beginning of a crisis, the common first reaction is to accept that people will do what they need to do. As the crisis drags on and lasts longer than some may have expected, the ongoing uncertainty takes a toll on the psyche. Maintaining open communications from trusted individuals helps reduce anxiety and lets people — employees and customers alike — feel that they are being looked out for and kept up to date with the developing situation and your evolving response.

Ahsan Upal's picture

Thank Ahsan for the Post!

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Discussions

Matt Chester's picture
Matt Chester on May 1, 2020 9:50 pm GMT

Maintaining open communications from trusted individuals helps reduce anxiety and lets people — employees and customers alike — feel that they are being looked out for and kept up to date with the developing situation and your evolving response.

Well said, Ahsan. For all the potential issues that could arise and customer complaints about utility providers, the response to the COVID-19 crisis has been admirable and has underscored just how dedicated and innovative today's utility workers are!

Ahsan Upal's picture
Ahsan Upal on May 3, 2020 4:59 am GMT

Thanks Matt, it's quite amazing to think that despite the crisis atleast where we live we've not experienced a single distruption in our utilty services.

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