The Energy Industry in the Time of COVID-19

24 Mar 2020

The energy industry has instituted operational changes to slow the spread of the new coronavirus while staying focused on continuing “essential” services.

In addition, energy agencies are pulling back on enforcement in response to the Covid-19 contagion. Onsite agency investigations and audits have come to a stop. State and federal energy agencies also are granting filing and compliance extensions and waiving certain requirements. That’s in addition to meeting cancellations, postponements and switching to online and telephone hearings by regulators, other entities and private and public utilities.

Since state and local shelter-at-home orders were issued, critical staff—from those running and overseeing the grid and distribution systems to substation operators—continue working onsite or in the field to keep power and service flowing.

The California Independent System Operator, which manages a large part of the state’s high voltage system, has six separate shifts of grid operators working in its massive high-tech control rooms. “We have 60 to 70 operators at any given time to call on, in case we need it,” said spokesperson Anne Gonzales.

CAISO’s control centers and operators have been isolated from the rest of the building. The grid operator staffs at the two control centers also are currently being kept separate.

For the California Public Utilities Commission, three types of events may be considered essential: Evidentiary and public participation hearings and pre-hearing conferences. “These are case-by-case calls that will be made by the Assigned Commissioner and the assigned Administrative Law Judge” with notices provided, according to a March 20 staff directive issued by CPUC Executive Director Alice Stebbins.

Essential utility workers are those who operate and maintain “essential infrastructure.” They include those handling gas and electrical systems.

About 5,000 of Southern California Edison’s employees continue to work at utility facilities or in the field, said spokesperson Paul Griffo. That includes substation operators, linemen and those who first respond to customers whose lights go out, known as “troublemen.”

SoCal Gas and other utilities also continue to send technicians to homes and businesses to address emergencies, such as suspected gas leaks and power outages. Workers are to follow the six-foot social distancing rule.

The Sacramento Municipal Utility District’s energy trading and contracts divisions—as well as power generation and supply, and transmission and distribution service dispatchers–are onsite and in the field. This staffing remains at normal levels, and respecting social distancing protocols.

“Line division, for example, changed some shift start-time schedules to expand distance between crews so one shift is out in the field before the next gets in. Power Supply Operations changed some rotational schedules to enable better separation as well,” according to SMUD spokesperson Chris Capra.

Non-essential utility and agency staff are working remotely, including those handling utility customer complaints and bills.

About 8,000 Edison employees have been working offsite to avoid business interruptions since March 16. Half of SMUD’s staff is working remotely.

Also being run remotely are “the normal daily huddles, team meetings and updates,” added PG&E spokesperson James Noonan. All in-person training has been suspended unless “required for business-critical reasons.”

Federal Energy Regulatory Commission employees are working remotely where possible. Those who have duties that can’t be done offsite, such as administrative workers and non-essential security personnel, and unable to telework, have been placed on paid administrative leave.

Late last week, FERC announced it was easing up on many of its deadlines and suspending onsite audits. Deadline extensions are to be granted for compliance filings, deficiency letter responses, rulemaking comments, and filings required by entities’ tariffs or rate schedules.

“The Commission is committed to ensuring that industry can focus on continuity, safety and stability—not regulatory or enforcement matters that are not mission-critical during this crisis,” FERC stated.

Elizabeth McCarthy

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