Blackouts during COVID-19 would be especially disastrous. And there is an unacceptable, heightened risk that they will occur if the skilled professionals at power plants, utilities and grid operators become infected and spread COVID-19 to their colleagues, with whom they typically work in tight quarters.
Similar events have already led the New York Stock Exchange to cancel in-person trading and caused disruptions in the air traffic control system. With the grid, the consequences are far more serious as electricity is a prerequisite for all aspects of modern life.
The most essential power-sector workers need to be given protective gear, tested periodically and even housed on-site for weeks at a time until the epidemic is over. Many of these actions have been already been undertaken in Europe and are in the nascent stages here.
Who are the key workers?
In a March 19 memo, the U.S. Department of Homeland Security said electricity professionals are critical infrastructure workers. Top of the list are:
- Workers who maintain, ensure, or restore the generation, transmission, and distribution of electric power, including call centers, utility workers, reliability engineers and fleet maintenance technicians;
- Workers needed for safe and secure operations at nuclear generation; and
- Workers at generation, transmission, and electric blackstart facilities.
At the New York Independent System Operator, the state’s transmission grid manager and one of the largest in the country, 37 workers, including four teams of control room operators are now living on-site to avoid COVID-19. The move-in began this week according to Bloomberg.
In Austria, Wien Energie provides electricity and natural gas to Vienna and surrounding areas. The company’s website reports, “53 employees have volunteered to part ways with their families for the next few weeks in the service of the Viennese. The employees are cut off from the outside world in order to prevent infection. All were medically tested before isolation.” This is exemplary customer and public service.
Italy’s large energy producer Snam has isolated key workers for two-week shifts. Many European energy companies are actively considering similar steps.
Before sequestering workers, they should be tested for COVID-19. Amid the drastic scarcity of tests, the above-listed workers should be given high priority for pre-emptive, ongoing testing. Policy makers need to push for this.
Many of these workers should also be issued face masks, which are now commonly worn by employees at banks and convenience stores. In many cases latex gloves should also be worn.
To “amp up” this process and make sure that all central players in the industry are doing what they should, governors, state emergency management professionals and utility commissions should request immediate briefings on the plans of companies and transmission operators.
And lest we forget, it is far better to go overboard with pre-emptive protection than to have to deal with COVID-19 after the fact. Many of the senior professionals running the grid are quite experienced with unique skill sets, i.e., they are old, particularly susceptible to dying from COVID-19 and we cannot afford to lose them.
Having a contaminated control room would also be catastrophic. The Centers for Disease Control in its cleaning and disinfection recommendations recommends to “close off areas used by the ill persons” ideally for up to 24 hours before remediation begins. That is simply not practical at many plants and grid operators. It leads to a Hobbesian choice: risk workers’ lives or shut down the facility and put the public at risk.
We can and must avoid such situations. The solutions are tough but doable: sequestering key professionals, ongoing testing and widespread use of protective equipment. NYISO has shown the way and its example should be emulated.
About the Author: Paul Steidler is a Senior Fellow with the Lexington Institute, a public policy think tank based in Arlington, Virginia.
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