By - Jim Vess

Electricity demand drops as utilities enact plans to keep lights on during the pandemic

Energize Weekly, April 1, 2020

The closing of businesses and sheltering-in-place of millions of citizens to tamp down the novel coronavirus pandemic is dampening demand for electricity, even as utilities across the country put in place emergency plans to keep electrons flowing through the grid.

Between March 14 and March 24, daily peak demand was down between 2.2 percent to 11.5 percent in the PJM Interconnection, the country’s largest grid serving 65 million people in the mid-Atlantic and Midwest regions.

“The impact so far has been noticeable, but not severe,” Michael Bryson, PJM senior vice president for operations, said in a statement. “This is similar to patterns we typically see on a snow day.”

PJM noted, however, that this period was also warmer than average is now trying to refine its load forecasting model to more clearly identify the impact of the virus, COVID-19, from the weather.

“We’re trying to tease out the difference between the two of those,” Chris Pilong, director of operations planning, said in a statement. “That is really the challenge at hand right now.”

The Independent System Operator (ISO) New England, which operates the grid for the region, reported on March 20 a 3 percent to 5 percent decline in system demand from the historical average taking into account weather conditions.

The Midcontinent ISO, the grid operator for all or parts of 15 states and one Canadian province, has seen March peaks down 18 percent compared to March 2019 and down 13 percent month-to-date compared six-year historical average, according to Utility Dive.

Bloomberg New Energy Finance (BNEF) reported that in New York, the area hardest hit by COVID-19, electricity use was down 7 percent in the seven-day period ending March 25.

Still, with people stuck at home, electricity has been a lifeline. “Millions of people are now confined to their homes, resorting to teleworking to do their jobs, e-commerce sites to do their shopping, and streaming video platforms to find entertainment,” Fatih Birol, executive director of the International Energy Agency, said in a commentary. “A reliable electricity supply underpins all of these services, as well as powering the devices most of us take for granted such as fridges, washing machines and light bulbs.”

So, even as there is a drop in electricity demand, utilities across the country are implementing business disruption or epidemic/pandemic plans they have had sitting on the shelf.

Utilities have been developing such plans for a decade, according to Scott Aaronson, vice president for security and preparedness at the Edison Electric Institute, a trade group representing investor-owned utilities.

Pandemic planning first began after the outbreak of the severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS) in 2003, Aaronson said. The H1N1 influenza, the so-called swine flu, pandemic in 2009 underscored the need for pandemic strategies.

The Electricity Subsector Coordinating Council, a group representing all parts of the power sector from investor-own utilities to municipal and rural providers, is also having weekly telephone conference calls with representatives of the U.S. Department of Energy and Homeland Security.

“Electric companies prepare for all contingencies, including ensuring operations and infrastructure are supported in pandemic conditions,” Aaronson said in an email. “This requires people who can run the system and provide reliable electricity throughout an emergency. To do so, electric companies identify those functions critical to their continued operations and the people needed to fill those positions.”

Such plans, Aaronson said, may include having critical employees sheltered-in-place – with cots, food, water and other supplies – at critical facilities or sequestering backup teams to replace a group that becomes compromised.

For example, four teams of New York ISO control room operators have moved into voluntary sequestration at trailers at two control centers.

One measure broadly being taken is to have all employees who can work remotely do so. Two-thirds of Southern California Edison’s 12,000 employees are now telecommuting, and 65 percent of the 2,000 employees at the Colorado Springs Utilities are working from home until April 20.

A survey of members of the Electric Power Research Institute (EPRI), a nonprofit research organization funded by the industry, collected a broad array of strategies including:

  • Wiping down equipment pre- and post-shift
  • Having sanitizing gels, sprays and wipes widely available at facilities
  • Issuing surgical masks for use during shifts
  • Restricting access to offices and other facilities

The plan developed by the Platte River Power Authority (PRPA), which provides electricity to four northern Colorado cities, incorporates many of these strategies.

The authority began a review of its plans and procedures on March 3, according to Alyssa Clemsen-Roberts, PRPA’s chief strategy officer.

“We have duplicates and backups and split the company into A and B teams,” she said. Each team has members to handle the full range of functions from management to customer service. Teams work on a two-week rotation.

Sixty percent of PRPA’s 250 employees are working from home, and if someone is feeling ill, he or she has to report to their supervisor and the human resources department before coming to work.

PRPA’s coal-fired Rawhide Energy Station has two separate control rooms, each with its own crew. The two crews do not mix. “This provides double redundancy in our control rooms,” Clemsen-Roberts said.

Shared workstations are wiped down with alcohol swabs at the start and end of each shift. Crew vehicles are assigned to individuals to use and maintain, as opposed to being kept in a motor pool.

“We are pretty confident we are going to come through this okay,” Clemsen-Roberts said.

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