While many people around the world suddenly find themselves working from home unexpectedly thanks to coronavirus, employees in the power industry could experience the opposite as essential staff may be asked to sleep on site as a precautionary measure as the outbreak spreads.
The federal government considers electric power plants to be “critical infrastructure.” This means they are expected to go to work, even in the midst of government-mandated shutdowns. And according to industry trade groups, electric companies are now stockpiling food, medications and blankets for their employees.
In fact, some companies have already started to sequester a group of healthy essential employees to prevent them from becoming ill, while others are considering the best ways to go about doing so. Some American nuclear power plants are also mulling isolating a core group who will be in charge of running the plant. Nuclear Energy Institute President Maria Korsnick said that some plants are even stocking up on disposable tableware, ready meals, and personal care items for their workers.
The Department of Homeland Security is in charge of keeping electric power plants and gas and oil infrastructure operational in emergencies. The department’s Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency issued guidance to governments and businesses last week requesting they put policies in place that will protect critical staff from contracting the virus.
How are power companies preparing?
A representative of The Great River Energy cooperative told Reuters that it drafted a detailed pandemic plan in the wake of the H1N1 bird flu outbreak of 2009. The cooperative runs 10 power plants that serve 1.7 million Minnesota customers. They have a supply of blankets and cots on hand at their main control center and are getting ready for possibly sequestering staff members who are essential to their operations. They’re already operating at their medium threat level, which sees their facilities configured in a way that leaves more space between workers and allows non-critical employees to carry out their work at home.
The cooperative said that they are planning for a scenario in which they lose as much as two thirds of their staff during the outbreak. They said their sequestering protocol, which could well keep workers out of the outside work for weeks on end, would be “effectively voluntary.”
Duke Energy Corp has started using worker screenings like temperature checks at their critical facilities, while non-critical workers are already working from home. They’ve also stated they won’t be disconnecting service to customers for nonpayment, but they advise customers to pay what they can so they don’t find themselves owing a bigger balance that will be hard to pay off later. The company serves power customers in six states.
Consolidated Edison of New York has been using measures to keep their most critical employees healthy, having some control center personnel work out of different locations. Other power providers in areas that have been hit hard by coronavirus, like Puget Sound Energy, have already limited access to the facilities in charge of their most critical operations.
Roy Palk of New Horizons Consulting, a firm that advises power companies, said there are still a lot of unanswered questions. He said he would advise plant operators to be ready for keeping critical staff members on site for at least eight weeks. He also wondered if these workers would be afforded a first responder status and priority when it comes to food and supplies given how critical their work is.
The coronavirus pandemic is already complicated enough, and it’s downright frightening to think of what might occur if we see widespread power outages and skilled workers are in short supply.
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