(TNS) — As New York heads into winter, the state's energy industry typically has its attention turned toward the usual potential disruptions: snow, wind and ice storms. This year, add Covid-19 to the list.
Winter weather in the time of the pandemic has arrived just as caseloads are spiking in New York and elsewhere. For the big players in the energy production, transmission and supply businesses, contingency plans are in effect. Utilities are prepared to sequester key workers to keep them safe.
Less clear is what happens if Covid hits a small, family-run propane or home heating oil business that is relied upon by families not connected to a utility.
Meanwhile, emergency response experts have already planned for power failures that could drag on for days with the deadly mix of Covid spreading. One thing they want is for the public to better prepare for the possibility of staying in their homes with no heat. For those who can't, plans call for opening more shelters to hold fewer people to try to keep the virus from spreading. This year, the scene of a high school gym packed with emergency beds won't be played out.
Delivering energy to heat and light homes and businesses is a complex, highly regulated system that has been even more complex with Covid.
The virus already gave its first tests last spring to the energy system, which has long built into place contingency plans for everything from weather to terrorism and pandemics. In a sign of the seriousness of Covid-19, however, an unprecedented document was signed by top power plant operators — private and public, in the Northeast as well as Ontario and Quebec — in which they would dispatch replacement staff to their competitors in the event one facility was, for instance, hit hard by Covid outbreaks.
The worker sharing pact wasn't directly tapped. But the plan is on the books for the winter as Covid rates rise.
"Our group efforts ensured that her was no reliability need in the spring, and we are ready to work with these groups again to — if the pandemic numbers warrant — ensure safe and reliable service through the winter," said Gavin Donohue, president and CEO of the Independent Power Producers of New York, which represents companies that generate more than half of the state's electricity by privately owned nuclear, hydro, wind, oil and other means.
Spring Provides Lessons
On March 27, a week after nonessential businesses were shut down in the state as Covid numbers rose, the New York Power Authority sequestered 17 key workers at the Niagara Power Project. Others were sequestered at authority sites throughout the state.
The objective: Keep those workers — control room operators, security and maintenance — Covid-free to ensure the flow of hydropower to communities that rely on the energy. Trailers and recreational vehicles were brought in for the workers to live for 30-day stretches, as were special shower trailers and kitchen trailers.
Across the state, the New York Independent System Operator, the brain behind the state's electric grid system, sequestration was also ordered for three dozen workers whose jobs are vital to ensure the flow of energy is not disrupted for 19 million New Yorkers. The ISO has two nondescript offices near Albany where operators, in front of massive, colorful display panels, are constantly balancing the energy supplies from hundreds of power plants.
Sequestering of NYPA workers has not happened since the spring — the trailers at the Niagara Power Project were closed on May 16 and a Queens facility kept its sequestration operation up and running until June 7.
A soup-to-nuts approach had to be taken. NYPA shopped for the isolated workers; they cooked for themselves. Washers and dryers were brought in for the sequestered workers.
"They were completely isolated for 30 days," said Gil Quiniones, president and CEO of NYPA, which is headquartered in White Plains and is the nation's largest state-owned power organization.
When it became clear in January to NYPA, which dispatches workers often to Asia and other areas, that Covid was taking hold in China, Quiniones said the first thing NYPA did was "dust off and refresh" its pandemic plan. Within a month, a current incident command center structure was in place and, by March when Covid began hitting New York, workers at its headquarters office were being told to work from home. A host of infrastructure projects, from vehicle recharging station build-outs to a transmission line in the Adirondacks, were immediately put on hold.
The reason? Protect NYPA workers. "Second, keep the lights on," Quiniones said of NYPA, a major source of energy for the state.
More recently, NYPA developed a multitiered set of internal protocols, guided by things like local infection rates and the governor's three-colored coded zones for shutting down the economy and society. It shapes, for instance, when key workers at power plants and electricity transmission facilities head back into sequestrations.
The NYPA head said two-thirds of its employees are back at their worksites. Two dozen power authority workers are certified by Johns Hopkins University to do contact tracing of their NYPA colleagues.
"Electricity is like the oxygen of the economy," he said.
Preparing For A Covid Winter
Overall, given companies going out of business or many office buildings devoid of workers who are doing their jobs remotely, the NYISO and industry officials say they expect demand to be lower than average. The supply of energy, they say, is more than adequate, barring surprises.
"Since there are no pandemics to which National Grid can make electricity consumption comparisons, it's a challenge to make the kinds of projections that we're discussing," David Bertola, a National Grid spokesman, said when asked about the utility's energy needs for this winter.
"Having said that, National Grid sees monthly industrial electricity use across New York State about 7 percent to 10 percent lower. Meanwhile, residential monthly electricity use is about 5 percent to 8 percent higher," he said in an email exchange. That results in an overall drop of about 3 percent in the average monthly electricity the company delivers in the state — a number it expects to continue "barring a significant event," such as a statewide lockdown.
Utilities have made changes under Covid. Central Hudson, which has a gas and electricity service area from the northern New York City suburbs to southern Albany County, now puts only one crew member in vehicles and has created new field posts to which crews now report each morning to help reduce how many workers are out on a call. Early on, it stopped nonemergency house calls, which soon resumed with adequate PPE supplies. Like other big energy companies, the utility said technology changes made a few years ago made it possible for much of its workforce to do their jobs remotely from home.
Smaller Players, Big Tasks
New York is the nation's No. 1 user of home heating oil, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration. New York City, where propane is banned except for uses like barbecue tanks, is still a major user of home heating oil. Meanwhile, at least 300,000 homes in New York State heat their homes with propane. Both types of fuel have to be delivered by trucks to consumers' homes.
"No one has called me about any concerns about elevated incidences of Covid-19. They can fit very easily within the confines of the governor's declarations," Richard Brescia, the lobbyist for the New York Propane Gas Association, said of Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo's various Covid policies.
Joe Lorenzo, president of the Empire State Energy Association, whose trade group that represents oil, propane and motor fuel companies, said many in the industry have made tweaks with Covid that will continue into the winter, such as doing away with customers paying drivers directly when they make fuel deliveries to their homes.
"There's no interaction with the delivery drivers," said Lorenzo, who owns Wever Petroleum, which services an area from Albany to Lake George.
What does worry Lorenzo is that much of his industry is composed of small firms. A Covid positive case or two, coupled with 14-day quarantines with fellow workers, could close a business. "If it's a cold winter and people are forced not to work that could be an issue, especially for the smaller companies. That's the biggest worry."
A Covid Winter Approaches
Also worrisome is the fear of a storm causing widespread power outages that takes days to restore. So how do officials handle people who need to stay at a shelter in the midst of a pandemic?
Daniel Neaverth Jr., Erie County's commissioner of homeland security and emergency services, said such an event is what experts in counties, cities, towns and villages are always preparing to handle. Shelters, whether for homeless people or those whose homes have lost power, are already pre-selected and pre-inspected.
With Covid, though, extra challenges have to be met. A plan to open a shelter to temporarily house 100 people changes to two shelters with a capacity of 50 people apiece. Buffet-style meals are out.
"We have no control over the weather. ... We do have control over the spread of Covid," Neaverth said. "People should be keeping that in mind as we head into the winter season," he said. Besides taking measures to reduce the Covid spread, the public should also prepare now for power outages that force them to stay in their homes for an extended period, the emergency services head urged.
Last week, Neaverth was briefed by the National Weather Service on the coming winter season. The bottom line: a milder winter, but with a series of extremely windy periods. "That equates to power outages," he said.
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