As Americans reduce direct contact with one another to slow the spread of the coronavirus, generation and transmission cooperatives are working to keep electricity flowing to homes, businesses and institutions.
“Our transition to working at home for those [employees] who are doing so was very smooth,” said Mike McFarland, director of enterprise risk management for Great River Energy. The G&T activated its pandemic response plan on Feb. 28 and told employees whose duties allow them to work from home to begin doing so March 12.
“Getting it done before this week, when more companies are facing the transition to offsite operations, has placed us ahead of the curve,” McFarland said, March 18.
Utility-scale power plants are critical infrastructure and the North American Electric Reliability Corp. requires that some essential activities be conducted by onsite personnel. McFarland said that for circumstances like this, GRE maintains a backup control center.
“We’ll go to the point where it will segregate totally to separate our shifts,” he said, adding that social separation has been part of GRE’s pandemic response plan since 2009. “One 12-hour shift is working in one facility; the other shift is working in another facility.”
Dairyland Power Cooperative has instructed staff to forgo face-to-face meetings in favor of phone calls, emails or teleconferencing. Many of Dairyland’s employees are also working remotely.
“We invoked our business continuity plan as a measure of precaution to protect our workforce while ensuring reliable operations,” said Dairyland President and CEO Barbara Nick. “We are doing our part to ‘flatten the curve.’”
At the federal level, the U.S. Department of Homeland Security on Thursday designated electric utility crews as essential critical infrastructure workers during the COVID-19 response.
The guidance gives certain employees the authority to continue their normal work schedule and includes workers who maintain or restore generation, transmission and distribution assets, including call centers, utility workers, mutual assistance personnel, IT/OT staff, cybersecurity engineers and vegetation management crews.
Keeping Communications Open
G&Ts say they are apprising their distribution co-op members and other wholesale power customers as to how business continuity measures might impact routine operations.
“Dairyland teams are communicating regularly with other utilities and NERC as we monitor conditions to ensure we continue to take prudent actions for safety and reliability,” Nick said.
Power plants and other operational facilities used by G&Ts are always secure facilities, but the pandemic threat has led to more restrictions. Those include suspension of vendor visits and relocation of services not required to be performed onsite.
Sunflower Electric Power Corp. has implemented the first phase of its pandemic threat mitigation plan, said Communications Manager Cindy Hertel. “Many of our staff, depending on their responsibilities, have the capability to work remotely and are being given the option to do so.”
Sunflower Electric’s staffers have access to current information and updates via the G&T’s intranet, she said. “We’ve also restricted most in-person staff meetings and visits to our facilities, asking vendors and service providers to communicate with us electronically.”
Hertel said senior managers are monitoring conditions and will adjust the G&T’s operating procedures as warranted.
Electric utilities have spent years planning for these kinds of emergencies in tabletop training exercises.
Scenarios used to test responses in real time have included bioterrorism events and seasonal pandemics. Senior managers and key operations personnel have worked to develop situational awareness responses, which are now being harnessed to manage coronavirus challenges.
Arkansas Electric Cooperative Corporation and Arkansas Electric Cooperatives Inc. have implemented their pandemic plans, said Rob Roedel, a spokesman for the statewide association and its member-owned G&T.
“These plans, that are reviewed and tested often, are designed to ensure that AECC’s generation and power distribution delivery processes and AECI’s statewide services are not disrupted by the pandemic situation,” he said.
With many power plants operating with only essential staff onsite, IT security has been enhanced and cyberattack monitoring has been increased.
The Cybersecurity Risk Information Sharing Program is helping G&Ts stay ahead of suspicious activity.
“We’re constantly aware of potential spikes in cyberthreat activity,” said GRE’s McFarland.
“CRISP is a public-private data sharing and analysis platform that provides energy sector stakeholders with faster threat identification and mitigation capabilities. We’ve all got to keep an eye on things, so we’re phish testing our employees even as they work remotely. We’re clearly on the lookout for heightened activity at this time.”
See NRECA’s COVID-19 hub on cooperative.com for key resources for co-ops, including guidance on business continuity planning and communication, as well as event schedule changes.
Derrill Holly is a staff writer at NRECA.