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Thoughts about Electric Power Systems' Risk Due to the pandemic coronavirus outbreak

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Thoughts about Electric Power Systems' Risk

Due to the pandemic coronavirus outbreak

  • Background

- The world has just experienced a pandemic coronavirus outbreak. This presents a unique threat to the bulk power system as the system is heavily reliant on critical personnel to operate reliably. Without proper planning, the loss of critical personnel will place the system at a higher risk of operational events occurring.

- As learned through the 2009 A/H1N1 event, planning for and responding to a pandemic is not a task the sector can take on alone: it will require close coordination with government and health authorities to ensure appropriate and coordinated steps are taken in a timely fashion.

  • Pandemic  Corona Virus Threat

- The pandemics are people events. The initial impact on the bulk power system is not physical damage to the grid but rather the absence of critical personnel who operate the grid and those who support them.

- The potential exists for severe workforce reduction either due to personal illness, widespread fear of contracting the illness, family issues (lack of daycare, school closings), or possible sequestration or confinement as a result of government intervention

- The electric sector, however, will face unique threats due to the real-time operating environment of the system and the high degree of specialization required to complete key job functions. Certain functions, such as system operators, require special certification and others may only be well understood by one or very few individuals within a given organization. A reduction in the availability of highly specialized grid and plant operators may make operating the system reliably increasingly challenging.

- The failure to maintain the reliable delivery of electricity to consumers would have serious and immediate impacts to society, national security and the ability to manage the event.

- Curtailing, common social distancing and mitigation practices may not be effective in system operations centers and among restoration crews. Common working areas and close interaction with colleagues create opportunities for infection and can aid in the spread of the virus across the organization. Immovable workspaces such as control centers and plant control rooms where multiple employees are sharing or rotating to the same work stations can further exacerbate this issue, as can close contact in the cab of a utility truck or van.

- The sector would also be vulnerable to government actions during a pandemic coronavirus, which may impact sector operations and workforce mobility.

  • Mitigations

- Mitigating the effects of a pandemic coronavirus outbreak will ultimately be focused on maintaining essential reliability services as workforce reductions impact entities’ abilities to continue normal operations.

- Many entities already have extensive business continuity plans in place to deal with the effects of a pandemic. Some entities are keeping stocks of personal protection equipment and anti-viral medication and medical staff on hand and others depending on government and health care support for these services.

- Planning for and responding to a pandemic outbreak requires close coordination with government and health services providers to ensure appropriate and coordinated steps are taken in a timely fashion to contain and limit the spread of the outbreak and ensure employees and their families have access to medications, personal protection equipment, and quarantined living arrangements if necessary. In addition, a clear determination of vaccine availability, priority and distribution would ensure critical function personnel is available to operate the bulk power system.

  • An Entity-Specific Planning

Entity-specific plans essentially have two components.

  • The first is best described as the traditional business continuity plan that focuses on human resource concerns, IT, and other internal operations policies. These plans govern how the entity treats issues such as absenteeism, telecommuting, and infection control. Many of these efforts are focused on the employee and will, therefore, require close coordination between human resources, planning, and management personnel.
  • The second component of entity-specific planning is governing the entity’s operational response to changing workforce conditions. These plans must be highly-coordinated across the sector to ensure reliability can be maintained as entities are affected by workforce reduction.
  • Operations

    - Much of the effort needed in the power system operation involves periodic drills of response actions and being aware of the triggers, information, and data needs discussed in the planning section above.

    - Procedures will need to be trained on and drilled to ensure operations and field personnel are familiar with social distancing, infection control, and self-screening practices.

    - Cross-training options may also be pursued to ensure designated backup personnel from other areas are better able to seamlessly take over responsibilities when needed.

   - Operators should also take into account the potential for reduced consumer demand scenarios due to absenteeism impacts across the economy.

N.B. (Excerpted from High-Impact, Low-Frequency Event Risk to the North American Bulk Power System, & June 2010 )

Dr. Amal Khashab's picture

Thank Dr. Amal for the Post!

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Matt Chester's picture
Matt Chester on Mar 25, 2020 12:19 pm GMT

Great insights, thanks Dr. Khashab. One part of it all that I haven't seen much coverage of is if there's going to be any adjustment and considerations to think about once everything is back to relatively normal. Do you think the transition back will simply be smooth and obvious, or might there be additional considerations to look out for? 

Dr. Amal Khashab's picture
Dr. Amal Khashab on Mar 25, 2020 9:27 pm GMT

Hi Matt

- I am afraid that back to normal may take some time.

- I went through the main report and find a warning that influenza ( main family of coronavirus) is highly unpredictable. It is expected that a pandemic will strike in at least two waves, each lasting six to eight weeks.  A third wave may also occur with characteristics similar to the second.

- Employees will need to be managed differently to conduct critical functions and ensure appropriate infection control measures are implemented. The pandemic could last from six months to as many as three years.

- However, utilities must adopt boy scouts slogan: be prepared.

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