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Matt Chester's picture
Energy Analyst Chester Energy and Policy

Official Energy Central Community Manager of Generation and Energy Management Networks. Matt is an energy analyst in Orlando FL (by way of Washington DC) working as an independent energy...

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  • Mar 24, 2021
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Hard to believe it, but it's officially been over a year since the COVID-19 pandemic was declared an emergency in the United States. One year ago, we asked the Energy Central Community for insights on the following Q&A Topic of Discussion: COVID19 and the Utility Industry—What Are You Doing?

Because of the topic's unprecedented scale and impact, this Q&A discussion became the most popular we've ever had on Energy Central, both in terms of views and number of responses. Given the importance of that question and the passage of an entire year since it was last relevant, we thought it was time to revisit in a retrospective manner. 

  • In the past year living and working amidst a pandemic, what lessons has your organization learned about what does and doesn't work in response to these unprecedented times?
  • How has a shift to a remote work environment shifted your work culture and what do you expect the long-term impacts of this to be?
  • What might you do to better prepare customers for unexpected economic burdens that events like this cause? 
  • How important has community and customer outreach been during this time? 
  • If you could rewind to before the pandemic, what might you have done differently to prepare knowing what you know now?

We know the impacts of COVID-19 are by no means over, but with an entire year behind us it's important to reflect, discuss, and share lessons learned so we can best make it through to the other side during this and any future times of crisis. 

Looking forward to the discussion!

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The COVID pandemic, and our quick reaction and steady response to it, will not soon be forgotten. While the beginning seemed a bit like a scramble, flexibility was crucial to our success. The ability to pivot and become comfortable with change became a necessary daily activity. Nimbly negotiating unforeseeable curves and adapting to challenges as they arrive, all in real time, will remain a point of pride for my team, the organization, and this company.

In March of 2020, we began a stressful chapter in our company’s rich history. While we faced many hurdles, professionally and personally, we never strayed from our primary objective: Finding ways to better serve our customers, who were undoubtedly going through a very stressful time.  Our senior leaders remained committed to connecting and serving our communities during these unprecedented times and we made it a priority to offer support in ways we have never done before.

I wrote more fully about the lessons learned in this full post. 

What have we learned in the utility industry?

Matt, I want to take a different tack in answering this question. When we first had lockdowns in the last year, we saw the shift in demand move from commercial space to residential space. Now, with less lockdown and more people getting vaccinated – the commercial demand is probably close to pre-pandemic levels. But the residential demand is still there because some of us are still working from home.

I also want to recap that during the last 12 months, we had California and Texas face blackouts in summer and winter, respectively. What is surprising in both instances is, the first news messaging pointed fingers towards the renewable industry, which is not true.

We are going to learn from both these experiences. Perhaps the common lesson that applies to both CA and TX, in my opinion, is, putting too many eggs in one basket. In CA, we relied on too much outside support. In TX, we believed the 2011 winter was an anomaly.

So, my bottom line is – we in the industry must have some humility to deploy “all of the above” solutions to address the challenges we face in the utility industry. By all of the above, I mean both transmission and alternatives to transmission solutions.

Matt Chester's picture
Matt Chester on Apr 5, 2021

So, my bottom line is – we in the industry must have some humility to deploy “all of the above” solutions to address the challenges we face in the utility industry. By all of the above, I mean both transmission and alternatives to transmission solutions.

Well said, Rao. There are countless solutions out there and none of them are the silver bullet. But by analyzing local/regional needs and available resources, we'll be able to make some great progress. Especially if we never get complacent, as you note. 

Matt, I would add two things.

First, EIA will try to answer this question in its AEO for 2021, as in

https://www.eia.gov/todayinenergy/detail.php?id=46636#:~:text=The%20United%20States%20will%20likely,Outlook%202021%20(AEO2021)%2C%20which

Second, given the difficulties fossil fuels faced during the pandemic, hydrogen has been promoted in relative terms.  A partial guide for investors is

Julian

Matt Chester's picture
Matt Chester on Apr 5, 2021

Thanks for sharing-- I haven't heard specifically about how the pandemic may have boosted the profile of hydrogen. In what was were fossil fuels facing difficulties other than an unexpected drop in demand for oil because of stay at home orders? I would assume those restrictions would have impacted whatever the fuel of choice was? 

Julian Silk's picture
Julian Silk on Apr 6, 2021

Dear Matt,

The drop in demand translates into big changes in capital investment, both real and financial.  It would take me a while to find the transcripts, but the law firms who comment on energy capital spending in Lexology were having webinars in which they were insisting that capital investment in fossil fuels had collapsed in 2020.  Everything was about tax equity in renewable energy, which promised immediate returns.  A reasonable discussion of this on a larger scale is

https://www.wsj.com/articles/the-dicey-economics-of-investing-in-oil-dur...

Julian

 

Matt Chester's picture
Matt Chester on Apr 6, 2021

Fascinating to see how the ripple effect can be so massive, thanks for the follow up, Julian!

Great discussion; this has brought so much chance for our utility company.

Yesterday, I went to downtown Tampa to take my husband to Tampa General Hospital for a follow-up. He was a victim of Covid-19 who almost lost his life. Thanks to USF/Tampa General for giving him Regeneron Monocolonal Antibody Treatment, he survived. It was great to take to him to lunch; it was the first time since he had been home from the hospital. I asked him if I could go into my office building and grab a few things. My emotions were everywhere. Everything felt different. The Plaza; headquarters for TECO Energy was empty other than the security guard. I realized how much I love our industry and how much I love and miss my co-workers. Who would have thought you would say this? Who would have ever thought you would miss going into your office?

The one thing we have learned from Covid-19 is to appreciate life, family, health and relationships! The support TECO Energy offered us during this difficult time was genuine and real. I’m so fortunate to work for a company that treats it’s employees like family from the top down.

Matt Chester's picture
Matt Chester on Mar 30, 2021

Well said, Holly-- it's not just about learning how to deal with the utility business of it all, but the human side of things is just as (if not more) important!

Great question Matt! My university learned that we are able to operate successfully even with the pandemic. Going into the pandemic lockdowns, we had a few advantages: 1) were already a highly ranked online educational institution (including our graduate Power Systems programs); 2) our IT capacity was already large enough to support a pivot to 100% online; and 3) we already had the training programs to teach our faculty how to effectively teach online. After the initial switch, we were able to form a safe "bubble" on campus using frequent testing (2X per week) and quarantines. We also de-densified classrooms, labs, and housing and stopped athletics. We then began to teach "TechFlex" - simultaneous in person and online classes to allow students to select either option. This is much more difficult for the faculty but our students appreciated the options. On the research front, we helped the world characterize the virus itself (to facilitate designing vaccines). We also produced free designs for ventilators using 3D printers and advanced robotics technology to allow greater social distancing in the medical world. To learn more, our Center for Global Public Safety is hosting a free Zoom meeting to review lessons learned across several industries (including a keynote from Pfizer). This will be held on April 1st from 10 to 12 eastern time. Here's the url for the webpage describing the event and including a registration link: https://www.wpi.edu/news/calendar/events/center-global-public-safety-ind...

Matt Chester's picture
Matt Chester on Mar 29, 2021

Impressive, thanks for sharing Mike!

My university learned that we are able to operate successfully even with the pandemic. 

I wonder if you can think back to last January and rate how likely you would have rated this statement to be true before having to actually go through the process? Would you have been confident you were fully ready to go, or would there be a bit of trepidation about that switch? 

Mike Ahern's picture
Mike Ahern on Mar 31, 2021

Hello Matt,

 

Even a year ago, I would have been confident we could handle the change.  My advantage was that I had been involved in our success with online learning for years.  Further, I had taken our "Faculty Institute for Online Learning" training program and I knew that our adaptable faculty could make the change.

 

That said, I will observe that the pandemic forced many instructors to adapt to online teaching.  As a result, I think the adoption of online course delivery in higher education was greatly accelerated by the need to change. 

 

Mike

COVID-19 has created a sea-change in the ways in which utilities will operate in the future. Even after the pandemic has ended, life will never return to the days of pre-COVID. As an evaluator, I will be monitoring the effects of COVID-19 for the rest of my career. 

Like any crisis, whether is a war, natural disaster, pandemic, human beings are remarkably adaptable. We learn new ways of going forward and often crises lead to new opportunities. The Depression led to the creation of Social Security; World War II accelerated the development of the aircraft industry (among other things), and we will experience some good things coming out of this pandemic. 

Most importantly, utilities have embraced new ways to continue to offer energy efficiency programs through contactless delivery, employees have learned to perform their tasks at home, and throughout the pandemic, the lights stayed on. (mostly). 

The key lesson for utilities is that the pandemic has accelerated the delivery of energy efficiency programs virtually. Customers are changing the ways they interact with the utility. The moratorium on energy bill shut-offs has reinforced to policymakers the critical need for assistance to vulnerable populations.

COVID-19 will end, eventually. But the pandora's box of new ways to assist customers and evaluate programs will stay with us. And, those changes will ultimately benefit utility customers across all classes-- as better interaction leads to better program design and implementation. 

I just hope it comes soon! I miss my friends and colleagues and look forward to continuing these discussions in person very soon.

 

 

The challenges of 2020 are a true test of American business leadership especially in our regulated electric and gas utilities with an “obligation” to serve.

What should the CEO of a post COVID-19 electric utility focus on in 2021 and beyond? The future depends on decisions made between two dramatically different scenarios 

  • a utility that will be acquired either by design or default or
  • a utility that wants to remain independent or seeks to acquire other utilities.

Utilities that will be acquired can continue “business as usual.”  They will work to prudently meet the day-to-day and seasonal challenges of operating a safe, reliable, and affordable utility and wait for the friendly or hostile takeover offer. Offers for small to mid-sized, non-nuclear investor owned utilities will be numerous and competitive in the years to come. Large domestic and foreign utilities with strong CEOs and leadership teams, robust renewable generation portfolios or plans, and healthy balance sheets are likely performing their due diligence on publicly available information… right now.

I discuss this more in the white paper I wrote, "CEO for the Day 2021—Post COVID-19."

Obviously COVID has impacted staffing at utilities. That's a given. And the necessity to work remotely has led to new ways of staying connected to the business. If I were to think that COVID could have ramifications beyond those two issues, I would look at AI becoming more important in the managing of utility operations and the grid.

Many years ago I was working with a software company that had developed neural agents. These software packets worked with central network operations software designed to manage computer networks. I introduced the concept into the telecommunications world and before leaving the company saw an evolutionary path to managing energy production, transmission and delivery using the technology. A neural agent would monitor energy flow, every piece of equipment, junction, whatever, learning the equipment's behaviours, knowing when something was not within normal parameters, eventually capable of intervening to ensure stability in energy production and delivery.

To me, the year of COVID should have advanced the use of AI in utilities and for the management of the grid. I haven't done any research to find out if this is the case, but it sure seems to have been the perfect opportunity.

Initially at the outset, I was impressed by reports that air and water quality had improved substantially in urban centers that had shut down around the world. I thought it was what was needed, what the environmentalists wanted. Then news that many large businesses would make work-from-home permanent, and home electricity use increased sharply. And freeway traffic was significantly less.. Now, however, it appears freeway traffic in west coast large cities of L.A. and S.F. are back to pre-pandemic levels. I haven't seen any updates on air or water quality.

In 2020 Uplight partnered with See Change Institute, to conduct a comprehensive survey of 1,000 customers from all over the US. And we gained an excellent understanding in how the pandemic has affected their relationship with energy and their utility. With 36% of households working from home, the pandemic has led to 48% of homes becoming distracted on how they use energy, and subsequently 50% of homes have seen an increase in their energy bills. The result is an increase in vulnerable customers as well with 15% having to postpone paying a bill.

Despite that though, customers indicated they are still just as interested in adopting smart energy saving technologies, including:

  • 23% made an energy-related purchase to increase comfort
  • 36% were thinking about buying a smart thermostat
  • 34% were thinking about buying an Electric Vehicle

With these insights on hand we’ve been able to better understand the customers in our demand management programs and define their challenges, and subsequently:

  • Ideate on how to improve our programs and user experiences to better meet customer needs

  • Prototype these adjustments and test hypotheses with our utility clients,

  • And then iterate as more data comes to hand and the environment changes, continually improving with this loop 

An example of this was updating our demand response program messaging to be empathetic of the circumstances. This include emphasizing elements of comfort and control, financial and community benefits, as well a frictionless, low to no level of effort experience. In the programs where community element was particularly emphasized we’ve seen higher levels of satisfaction as well.

The second modification we made was to leverage our partnerships to create an innovative offering whereby we could in a matter of just a couple weeks stand up a high profile 100,000 free thermostat giveaway at Consumers Energy, to enable customers to help save on their energy usage and be more comfortable while at home. In addition we could significantly grow the smart thermostat demand response program.

And finally, while in previous years only a third of customers reported having someone home during an event, this year it surged to 70%. So there was a increased awareness of events, particularly the pre-cooling schedule. Subsequently this resulted in iterations of how we optimize dispatch and daily schedules, across the device manufacturers we work with. I touched on this before, but emphasizing community impact and benefit of their participation was really important to ensure understanding and ride-through with events.

Matt, this is why I participate in, and am committed to supporting the Energy Central Community. Real world topics and issues are discussed in a transparent and objective manner among people with a high level of proficiency on the topics. Thanks for the opportunity to comment on this.

The last 13 months have been exasperating on so many levels, affecting human health, severe weather events, sky high unemployment, assaults on the Capitol, rioting in the streets and too many senseless deaths. One of the truly painful impacts affecting the energy industry and consumers is the amount of debt that is pilling up due to the inability to pay for electric service due to unemployment or absurdly high electric bills, that have driven some Companies and individuals into bankruptcy. I find one message to be an absolute truism "We must do whatever is necessary to ensure a reliable and resilient electric system in what promises to be an even more challenging ecosystem, plagued by climate change and challenges related to recovery from the COVID-19 pandemic." There is significant uncertainty in the forward looking electric system, that is not easily "hedged". Forecasting actual consumer demand and generation supply is becoming more complicated due to a rapidly changing resource mix. The impacts from electrification of transportation and heating/cooling living/working spaces is a big unknown, that can have significant impact. Climate change is providing the "urgency to act", and we must respond intelligently or face the consequences of our actions/lack of actions.

I look forward to other viewpoints and further discussion of these important topics.

The pandemic is teaching us many things, among them to be better humans and to live in harmony with everything around us. Personally I think it is an alert and a call from mother earth to ingratiate ourselves, even from the friendly energy generation; not with this I mean that we leave the comfort to which technology has led us but to change our way of doing it, to get involved with what surrounds us, that not only on the planet inhabits the human being. 
I also think that the human being becomes a protagonist in the energy sector and is already taking its role with strategies such as demand response or the sale of the same surplus.
The question I leave in this forum is: Are we ready to live in harmony with what surrounds us?

At EnerKnol we are tracking 224 dockets across all state utility commissions that deal with issues ranging from shutoff moratoriums to establishing regulatory assets for cost tracking and recovery. If anyone wants to dig in specifically to a state, utility, region or theme let me know. Our surveillance software reads through the noise and detects the matters being discussed.

A great starting point for this discussion is looking back at some of the key posts/resources/topics of discussion that have come into Energy Central over the past year directly related to COVID-19. I'm going to post some of those most relevant links that had highly engaged and informative discussions for reference of a starting point, resources to learn more, and pulling in more thought leaders to the discussion:

Matt Chester's picture
Matt Chester on Mar 24, 2021

Carlos Sousa recently asked the Customer Care Community to share best practices utilities have adopted to support the company and its customers amid the pandemic. The discussion there  has been fascinating and valuable: https://energycentral.com/c/cc/you-could-share-best-practices-utilities-are-adopting-support-company-and-its

Matt Chester's picture
Matt Chester on Mar 24, 2021

Tilak Subrahmanian, VP at Eversource, asked the Utility Management Community last month about how utility organizations can continue to support their network of contractors and business partners amid navigating the pandemic, and he got some really thoughtful replies from the community. https://energycentral.com/c/um/how-do-we-continue-support-our-network-contractors-and-business-partners-and

Matt Chester's picture
Matt Chester on Mar 24, 2021

Back in normal, many of our community members were eager to look ahead to when we were on the other side of COVID-19 by answering the question: When COVID-19 hit, utilities had to act fast to adjust to the 'new normal.' But in the future, they'll transition back to more typical operations-- how will that transition 'back to normal' look?

https://energycentral.com/c/um/when-covid-19-pandemic-hit-utility-industry-had-act-fast-adjust-new-normal-some

Matt Chester's picture
Matt Chester on Mar 24, 2021

Cybersecurity was poised to be a huge topic in 2020-21 for the power sector, but the shift to remote working and more virtual services hastened some of the digital transformations in a way that some weren't sure if utilities were prepared to weather. One attendee of a ScottMadden webinar through Energy Central asked: Can someone elaborate on the cybersecurity aspect in the grid during current COVID19 situation?

The discussion this prompted could not be more important: https://energycentral.com/c/gr/can-someone-elaborate-cyber-security-aspect-grid-during-current-covid19-situation

Matt Chester's picture
Matt Chester on Mar 24, 2021

At the same ScottMadden webinar, another attendee asked: Can you highlight any existing utility mechanisms that have helped mitigate COVID19 impacts (liquidity, demand/power loss, etc.)?

The responses were equally as enlightening: https://energycentral.com/c/um/can-you-highlight-any-existing-utility-mechanisms-have-helped-mitigate-covid19

Matt Chester's picture
Matt Chester on Mar 24, 2021

Lastly, the Energy Efficiency Community was eager to chime in on how COVID-19 forced them to adjust their standard business practices:

In response to the uncertainty caused by COVID-19, what are some of the practices you're having to change or implement in the energy efficiency sector?

https://energycentral.com/c/ee/response-uncertainty-caused-covid-19-what-are-some-practices-youre-having-change