How COVID-19 could transform the utilities industry

How COVID-19 could transform the utilities industry
Jun 5, 2020

Across lives and industries, the COVID-19 pandemic is having a dramatic impact on daily life. What challenges are utilities facing right now? Two ICF experts weigh in on our new normal.

Utilities are used to responding to disasters like storms and floods and wildfires. But a global pandemic is something most utilities and their facilities are experiencing for the first time.

The COVID-19 pandemic has disrupted almost every aspect of how the world functions, from the ways in which individuals get their work done to supply chains that keep grocery stores and pharmacies stocked with essential goods. Utilities, which provide regular sources of energy for customers around the world, aren’t exempt from these challenges.

Even before the COVID-19 pandemic, utilities were faced with tough operational choices due to the pervasive threat of climate change. These tough choices shaped everything from infrastructure planning to building utility resilience

And the current pandemic is just another crisis layered on top of ongoing ones. 

Challenges and complexities

A look at the front lines of the utility industry shows some of the many ways the COVID-19 pandemic is impacting everyday operations. 

With everybody social distancing at home, non-essential businesses are shut down, which means a lack of commercial business. Millions of Americans are out of work and are currently—or soon will be—struggling to pay bills. This is a major loss in revenue. Utilities are also paying overtime for their employees as well in order to support temporary medical facilities and shelter areas, draining their budgets (and, in some instances, their funding). In recognition of customer difficulties, many utilities have suspended turning off services for non-payment.   

How do you work on sites and projects that require a physical presence and employees working side-by-side? When a utility lacks a sufficient number of N95 masks and other personal protective equipment (PPE), this can present a significant challenge. 

While most utilities’ business continuity plans included provisions for pandemic outbreaks, the availability of N95 masks for each and every employee was probably not well thought through. Now that we’re in the midst of an actual pandemic, investor-owned and municipal-owned utilities alike are focusing on next steps for the short term and long term. 

Responding to a pandemic includes three fundamental strategic elements:

  • Reducing the risk of employee infection.

  • Meeting business needs with fewer employees.

  • Understanding critical interdependencies.

Each of these elements needs to be addressed both for the short term and the long term.

Short-term solutions

One of the major ways utilities can reduce the risk of employee infections in the short term is through social distancing and proper PPE. Epidemiologists see keeping a relatively safe distance between people as a powerful weapon for fighting back against the pandemic—but it can also make essential work difficult. 

By reconfiguring meeting rooms and work facilities where a large number of employees normally congregate, utilities can allow employees to continue working while maintaining the recommended six feet of safe distance between one another. For on-site visits, additional vehicles can allow employees the option to drive separately.

While working remotely is proving to be a viable option for many employees in many industries, it’s more complicated for utilities. 

Some jobs—such as those in marketing and accounting areas—can easily be done remotely, and the shift has been relatively easy. Other jobs, like field operations, are dependent on being on-site, making remote work more difficult. Utilities are working to address issues involved in remote working, such as impeding collaboration and increasing the risk of vulnerability to cyberattacks.

To meet operational requirements with fewer employees, utilities can reduce the need for physical presence in the field. One possibility: leveraging remote sensor information to inform operating decisions (for example, the “remote inspections” some utilities have already implemented). Some manufacturers have begun releasing digital instruction videos that allow utilities to service equipment themselves, without a site visit from service technicians. 

The key to understanding critical interdependencies in the short term is identifying the actions needed to support community lifelines. As defined by the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), these lifelines connect the most fundamental services in a community. When stabilized, community lifelines enable all other aspects of society to function. 

Public Service Electric and Gas (PSE&G) put this short-term solution into action recently, by strengthening the electric infrastructure serving hospitals.

As for upstream dependencies, utilities can identify critical materials and supplies. From there, they can begin to work with vendors to understand possible near-term impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic. 

Long-term solutions

Of course, even when a vaccine becomes available, it will only protect against the COVID-19 virus—not future viruses. Human history has recorded 20 pandemics throughout the Common Era, and there will undoubtedly be more in the future. That means long-term strategies are needed to build long-term resilience.

To lower the possibility of employee infection during another pandemic, utilities can build on the same strategies they’re using to manage during this one. They can: 

  • Work with manufacturers to develop tools to make it easier for two-person tasks to be completed while social distancing. 

  • Make stocks of medical-grade PPE part of core business continuity planning.

  • Source and deploy tools that facilitate remote work while addressing possible cybersecurity risks.

  • Develop and implement employee contact tracing tools to track possible exposure.

Of course, it’s likely that some employees will be out of work, either sick themselves or taking care of an ill family member. Long-term solutions are required so utilities can meet operational needs with fewer employees.

One way is to reduce the need for a physical presence in the field. Grid modernization investments such as Supervisory Control and Data Acquisition (SCADA) systems, sectionalizing switches and smart meters, all help to gather and analyze real-time data and provide greater remote visibility and control. In fact, many utilities currently use these systems to reduce field visits during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Utilities can also increase the number of employees qualified to perform a given task. This means leveraging training technology now to cross-train employees for multiple roles (and maintaining proficiency through ongoing refresher courses). 

Robotic technologies can also help reduce personnel needed to accomplish a given task (as Con Edison is doing) to assist with substation operations.

One important long-term goal should be building system resiliency. Utilities will have to look at their systems and figure out how to learn from mistakes. They’ll need to take lessons from these weeks and months of operating abnormally and shape them into a “new normal.”

Take, for example, what utilities have learned from hurricanes. It’s common now for utilities to park their trucks in a parking lot away from areas of potential flooding—but the trucks are parked nose-to-nose. That’s because hurricane winds, in the past, have blown simple sticks that have punctured radiators, rendering some trucks un-operational. Parked nose-to-nose, however, the trucks are better protected. 

Funding and investing options

But resiliency, of course, requires funding.

There are several funding sources that will only pay for certain projects and not others. Utilities need to know the funding sources available, because the COVID-19 pandemic is impacting many of their operational budgets. These funding sources can be complex.

One source of funding for utilities comes from FEMA. FEMA’s public assistance program focuses primarily on municipal-owned utilities, since they are publicly owned and not investor-owned. However, investor-owned utilities can receive federal funding by working with an eligible applicant to mitigate the system that has been impacted and is aligned with the lifelines of the community.

FEMA can help utilities fund:

  • Emergency protective measures for employees.

  • Overtime pay for employees at operation centers.

  • New operations for temporary medical sites and shelters.

  • Solutions to power outages at healthcare centers.

  • Technology to make remote work easier for employees.

  • Costs associated with mutual assistance that may be needed. 

  • Pre- and post-event mitigation strategies for future events.

Hazard mitigation funding is available to utilities to make investments to build resiliency into their systems to protect community lifelines based on the lessons learned from the COVID-19 pandemic. Available programs include the Community Development Block Grant Mitigation (CDBG-MIT) program, and FEMA’s Building Resilient Infrastructure and Communities (BRIC) program.

Preparing for the new normal

During the COVID-19 pandemic, we must work together to navigate these uncertain waters. Utilities need ideas for the short and long term, and also the resources that can translate those ideas into meaningful change.

Experts in both our Climate and Resilience and Energy divisions are taking gut checks of what’s happening on the ground and putting those lessons into action for leading utilities. Teams of industry experts are holding meaningful conversations with stakeholders about how to make it through this current pandemic—and how to best prepare for the next one. 

In the time of COVID-19, the world is changing by the second. ICF is here to put its perspective and expertise to good use as utilities everywhere discover just what the new normal looks like.

Meet the author
  1. Neil Weisenfeld, Senior Energy Resilience Expert

    Neil is an expert in developing energy systems’ resilience to better serve communities, with over 35 years of industry experience. View bio

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