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Utilities step up amid coronavirus challenges

Stephen Hill
Sr. Content Development Specialist

Quarantines and social distancing have forced people to stay inside and work from home - canceling schools, events, and greatly disrupting our daily lives.

Still, everyone expects, and needs, utilities to keep the lights on, clean water running, and natural gas flowing to heat our homes and run our appliances. That’s exactly what utilities worldwide are doing, and still adhering to the mandatory practices to keep customers and employees safe.

Behind the scenes, utilities are taking extraordinary measures to keep critical systems running. Even though the Electric Power Research institute, EPRI, is reporting a reduction in peak demand, there’s still a critical need to deliver electricity to homes, hospitals, and essential business like grocery stores and pharmacies.

Here is a review of just some of the remarkable efforts that utilities are undertaking to deliver the indispensable services of our modern life, and generally help others in need as well. Find many other examples of utilities going above and beyond during these tough times at #poweringthrutogether on social media.

Working in grid isolation

The state of New York experienced one of the worst coronavirus outbreaks in the nation. The state’s independent system operator, ISO, took the proactive measure of isolating its control center employees at two Albany locations. Near the end of March, 37 employees of the state’s grid operator voluntary sequestered themselves for an indefinite period. It’s part of a decade long “business continuity” plan never before implemented.

The employees will work 12-hour shifts, eat and sleep in trailers, physically isolated from the rest of the world, including their families. The sequestration of the power grid operations center continues as management keeps informed of state and federal guidance on the pandemic.

In the event that both ISO locations are compromised, NYISO can turn over the grid responsibility to New York’s two largest utilities, Con Ed and National Grid.

Face-to-face with COVID-19

Employees of Southern Company’s Atlanta Gas Light suited up in personal protective equipment to enter the home of a COVID-19 patient for a gas service activation in Conyers, Ga. The customer self-identified as having the coronavirus, and suspected his wife did as well. AGL crew members took proper precautions, wearing PPE, and kept the appropriate social distance from the infected couple.

Utility construction workers are also continuing to build during the quarantine period. Workers at Southern Company’s Vogtle nuclear plant have completed several construction milestones at the facility in Burke County, Ga. In addition to the construction efforts, Southern Company recently opened an on-site 24-hour medical clinic for all workers on the Vogtle construction project.

The clinic can test for COVID-19, flu and other diseases, and provides basic free medical care for the 9,000 on-site workers.


Proposing to reduce

In an article to the South Florida Sun-Sentinel, Florida Power and Light CEO, Eric Silagy is proposing a one-time, 25% bill reduction for May for all the utility’s customers. FPL is asking the Florida Public Service Commission to fast-track “a significant bill reduction” for the month.

“While our proposal is unconventional and unprecedented, these are far from normal times,” said Silagy. “I believe it’s incredibly important to infuse Floridians with as much money in their pockets as quickly as possible during this uncertain economic time.”

Suspending disconnects

Unemployment rising in the U.S., many utility customers will find paying their electric and water bills a burden. The list is too long to name here, but literally hundreds of utilities, worldwide as well, are suspending all disconnects during the quarantine crisis.

Some of the prominent utilities include, but is certainly not limited to: CPS Energy in San Antonio, Duke Energy, Piedmont Natural Gas, Sacramento Municipal Utility District, Austin Energy, Exelon, Entergy, Evergy, and all of First Energy’s business units.

Utility donations are making a difference

Baltimore Gas & Electric is part of Exelon’s $1 million donation to charitable organizations to help with coronavirus response and relief. BGE donated $175,000 to the United Way of Central Maryland, the Maryland Food Bank, and the Baltimore Community Foundation.

No list can comprehensively, or adequately, show all the charitable donations, acts of kindness, or the efforts to help customers. Some of the more notable, and extraordinary acts do include:

  • National Grid donated 1,000 PPE items to Tufts Medical Center on National Doctors Day
  • Duke Energy Foundation gave $810,000 to North Carolina K-12 education organizations as part of its COVID-19 relief efforts
  • PG&E delivered 1 million safety masks to the Governor’s Office of Emergency Services
  • PSEG in New Jersey donated 50,000 N95 masks to health care workers and first responders
  • Eversource of Massachusetts donated 85,000 pairs of gloves for frontline medical workers
  • FirstEnergy Foundation donating $1million to food banks and United Way organization throughout its service territory during the COVID-19 crisis

Coloring outside the lines

For families with children stuck inside these are especially tough times. Online classes and increased screen time only fill so much of a day. Grant County Public Utility District has a solution: coloring pages of the utility’s superheroes.

Any utility customer can download the free comic book coloring pages depicting Grant County’s safety superheroes, Surge and Electricia. While the kids are busy coloring, they are also learning electrical and recreation safety tips, energy conservation and just plain having fun.

Blowin’ in the wind of kindness

If this last little story doesn’t give you misty eyes, or just make you smile, please check your pulse.

Mike Whaley is a technician for National Grid in Albany. When Mike got the dispatch call to untangle something on a power line, he found a kite and string snarled around the line. After successfully removing the kite, blue with rainbows, and its lengthy string, Mike returned it to the home of eight-year-old Abbey.

Abbey’s mother, Amy, has a suppressed immune system, and is at a heightened risk of coronavirus infection, which means their shopping trips have been limited. So the blue kite with rainbows purchased on their last outing was a precious item for Abbey.

Even though the kite was returned, albeit slightly damaged, Whaley thought of how devastating it would be if this happened to his five-year-old twin sisters. Whaley made his own trip to the store, leaving a new kite in Abbey’s mailbox with an unsigned note.

“I felt bad for your daughter, so I hope this new kite makes her smile. Stay safe and healthy!”

Amy posted the story on Facebook, and sent a note to the Albany Times Union to share the actions of this kind stranger. Word got back to National Grid, who identified the thoughtful technician.

“I didn’t expect to be recognized,” said Whaley about the viral social media response.

But we’re all glad he was so that we could appreciate this story. It shows that during these tough times, a little kindness will go a long way.

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Comments ( 1 )
  • Vanessa Wednesday, April 15, 2020
    I am continually impressed by the lengths that folks within the utility ecosystem will take the ensure our way of life. Thanks for the article-silver lining stories are hard to come by these days.
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