Grid Girds for Virus Long Haul

March 30, 2020


New York’s historic decision to require workers to live at facilities operating the state’s power grid during the novel coronavirus pandemic may be a test case for the rest of the nation.

For the first time, the grid operator has asked more than three dozen workers to live 24 hours, seven days a week at two control centers in the suburbs of Albany, N.Y.

As part of a multilayer plan to ensure the state’s power remains flowing, the New York Independent System Operator (NYISO) says two crews can live at the sites in East Greenbush and Guilderland, N.Y., indefinitely. In the rare case that both operating rooms become infected at the same time, the local utilities — Consolidated Edison Inc. and National Grid PLC — would help operate the grid.

“We have never done this before. We drilled for this stuff, we’ve had plans in place for different types of sequestration,” Richard Dewey, NYISO’s chief executive officer, told E&E News. “This is pretty unprecedented in our history.”

The crisis has rippled throughout the Empire State’s economy and Legislature, shuttering businesses and prompting a delay of the state’s presidential primary that was scheduled for next month. It’s also thrown the state’s climate goals into peril by delaying Cuomo’s proposal to overhaul permitting for renewable projects.

As the virus spreads, other U.S. grid operators say they are preparing for and monitoring New York’s experience. NYISO shares information with other U.S. and Canadian grid operators, all of which have gone through similar steps to prepare, Dewey said.

“We are the first grid operator to actually put the plan in motion, to move the operators on-site, and that’s primarily because of the very high rate of infection that New York state is seeing, where it’s much higher than in other parts of the country,” Dewey said. “People are trying to gather information from us about what we did, what worked, what we think didn’t work, sort of a lessons learned, so to the extent to this pandemic spreads more drastically across the country and they’ve got to take similar steps, they put those plans in place, as well.”

One of those grid operators is PJM Interconnection, which operates the grid in 13 Midwest and Mid-Atlantic states and the District of Columbia. PJM officials on their first weekly coronavirus briefing Friday outlined steps it’s taking to respond, including transitioning control room workers to two 12-hour shifts, cleaning work stations before and after each shift, and dedicating building entrances for control room operators and established “staging centers” to eliminate person-to-person handoffs between shifts. PJM said it’s prepared to leave the pandemic response plans in place into the summer months if necessary.

PJM is also asking workers to self-quarantine at home when they’re not on shift and encouraging them to conduct temperature checks before coming to work. Like NYISO, PJM is also making plans for sequestration of control room operators — or living on-site — if doing so becomes necessary.

In New York, Jon Sawyer, the manager of grid operations at NYISO, has been living on-site at the NYISO control center in East Greenbush since March 23. He is living alongside both skilled grid workers and individuals responsible for ensuring the site has heat, light and prepared meals.

“Theoretically, we could do it forever,” he said. “In practicality, the individuals that are performing this work are eventually going to have to deal with fatigue and they’ve separated themselves from their families, so there are all the stresses and strains of knowing that your family is living without you and may be subject to the same viral infections.”

The workers have been divided into teams at each site in New York — one operating the grid during the day, the other at night. Should a worker become infected at one site and the control room is compromised, NYISO would tap the other site to take on all grid-operating duties, Dewey said.

He said local utilities would step in if workers get sick at both locations.

“If it happens at the same time, that would be pretty challenging,” Dewey said. “We do have backstop provisions in a dual disaster scenario; some of our member utilities have capabilities to also run parts of the power system, so National Grid and Con Edison — and this is something we test and drill every year, we’ve never had to do it — but we could turn over certain elements of control of the power system for short periods of time to those two, so that’s our third level of defense.”

NYISO officials emphasized they are going to great lengths to ensure such a scenario doesn’t unfold, including testing workers for infection and rigid cleaning regimens.

“It’s a backup plan for a backup plan,” Dewey said.

Those power systems, according to the study, recorded reductions in peak demand and energy use of 3% to 15% in the first two to three weekdays of each region’s shelter-in-place order when compared with the previous week and the same week in 2019.

Despite those dips in demand, EPRI concluded the data shows grid operators across the globe appear to be maintaining reliability.

And on March 19, Tesla Inc. suspended production at its solar factory in Buffalo, N.Y., although Chief Executive Elon Musk said in a tweet last week that the facility would reopen “as soon as humanly possible” to begin producing ventilators (Energywire, March 20).

Perhaps the most deeply affected energy industry, according to advocates, has been energy efficiency, which employs over 126,000 workers statewide. On March 23, the New York State Energy Research and Development Authority (NYSERDA), the state’s chief energy agency, released guidance that said it would pause in-person work with clean energy contractors “in the residential, commercial and industrial sectors” until at least mid-April.

In a letter sent Friday to NYSERDA and the state’s utility regulator, Reynolds’ group warned that much of the energy efficiency industry in the state was already laying off or furloughing 40% or more of their workforces.

“The situation is dire,” it wrote. “[W]e are at risk of losing the skilled workforce that we have all employed and trained for many years.”

While the state’s restrictions on in-person work remain in place, the group said, cash payments and other funds should be made available to contractors so they can retain workers and train them in virtual sessions, among other interim measures.

“[T]he future of New York’s clean energy and energy efficiency goals may hinge on the policy decisions made in response to the Covid-19 crisis in the following days, weeks, and months,” the letter added.

3 Responses to “Grid Girds for Virus Long Haul”

  1. doldrom Says:

    Wasn’t only the Republicans denying … lots of Dem top brass were encouraging people to ignore “racist fears” and attend events, implying the virus was a new Republican tactic to engender racism while Republicans were accusing Dems of starting yet another hoax to blame on Trump … ideology is really really bad for the mind.

    By the way, the Chinese have published about clinical trials (Feb 19) about using chloroquine, remdesavir, and anthramycin successfully at early stage disease progression. Not being able to learn from the Chinese experience and science (asymptomatic spread, face masks!) strikes me as pretty racist too.

    The fear of disinformation is overhyped. Using a hair driver is not misinformation, it’s just stupid, and only partly incorrect — if you manage to kill yourself, you will also be a poor host to any virus. Looking for a conspiracy behind every piece of bullshit is as childish as blaming the door when you hurt yourself.

    • rhymeswithgoalie Says:

      Got a link for the Chinese clinical trials?
      I still tend to be highly skeptical of Chinese science because of the relatively high level of cultural and political influence on their reporting.

  2. redskylite Says:

    It is good to see that the power company had been running drills for a possible New York epidemic – I guess the nearest thing (in modern times) to the outbreak was “Spanish Flu” back in 1918, when many New York buildings lacked electricity. With improved public hygiene and disciplined social/physical distancing we can flatten the curve and beat this thing. 30,000 people died in NY from the “Spanish flu” out of a city population of 5.6 million.

    “How some cities ‘flattened the curve’ during the 1918 flu pandemic
    Social distancing isn’t a new idea—it saved thousands of American lives during the last great pandemic. Here’s how it worked. . . . . . . .”

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