Twice a day New York Power Authority employees leave the control room of the Niagara power plant, just a few miles from the waterfall of the same name. They are being replaced by cleaning staff who disinfect the banks of computer monitors and panels that control the state's largest power generation station. Outside of the facility, medical workers measure the temperature of the people who come for the next shift and ask them a number of questions: Have you recently traveled abroad? Do you have symptoms of a respiratory infection?
This is the new normal for the largest US public utility that is strengthening its pandemic control plan as the number of Americans infected with coronavirus continues to grow. Most of the 1
Control rooms are the brain of NYPA's power plants, which are largely hydroelectric and provide about a quarter of all New York state electricity. They are also a bit like human petri dishes. The control rooms are small, covered with frequently touched switches and surfaces and occupied by half a dozen employees for hours. Since social distancing and teleworking are not an option in this context, NYPA has performed regular health checks and deep cleansing to keep the corona virus away.
The problem is that each power plant only needs a handful of control room operators. Because they have special skills, they cannot simply be replaced when they get sick. "They are very, very critical," said Gil Quiniones, president and CEO of NYPA. If the pandemic worsens, Quiniones says the NYPA operator of on-site control rooms could live in power plants to reduce the likelihood of the virus getting inside. It sounds drastic, but Quiniones says NYPA has already done this in an emergency – once during the massive 2003 power outage and again during Hurricane Sandy.
PJM is now one of the nine regional network operators in North America and manages the moving transmission lines power from power plants to millions of customers in 13 states on the east coast, including Washington, DC. PJM has had a pandemic response plan on the books for 15 years, but Mike Bryson, senior vice president of operations, says this is the first time it has come fully into effect. Up until last week, around 80 percent of PJM's 750 full-time employees worked from home. However, PJM also requires that a skeleton crew of key employees be on site at the control centers at all times. As part of its contingency planning, PJM set up a backup control center years ago, and now it divides control center operators between the two to limit contact.
Past experience of major disasters has helped the energy sector keep the light on. and ventilators – turned on during the pandemic. Energy is one of 16 sectors that the US government has identified as "critical infrastructure," which includes the communications, transportation, and food and water systems. Everyone is seen as vital to the country and therefore has a duty to maintain operations in national emergencies.
"We need to be treated as first responders," said Scott Aaronson, vice president of security and preparedness at the Edison Electric Institute, a trading group that represents private utilities. “At the moment everyone's goal is to keep the public healthy and to make society function as well as possible. A lack of electricity will certainly pose a challenge to these goals. “
America's power grid is a patchwork of regional grid operators that connect private and state utilities. Maintaining power flow during a national emergency is one of the greatest challenges, according to Aaronson.
Much of this responsibility generally rests with formal energy organizations such as the nonprofit North American Electric Reliability Corporation and the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission. During the outbreak of the corona virus, an obscure organization led by the electricity utility CEOs under the name Electricity Subsector Coordinating Council also served as the primary link between the federal government and the thousands of utilities in the United States. According to Aaronson, the organization has met twice a week for the past three weeks to ensure that utilities respond to the corona virus using best practices and to inform the government of material needs to ensure the smooth operation of the energy sector is required.  This close coordination will be particularly important if the pandemic worsens, as many predictions suggest. Most utilities belong to at least one mutual support group, an informal network of utilities that help each other during a disaster. These mutual support networks are typically needed after major storms that threaten longer outages. In principle, however, they could also be used to support the coronavirus pandemic. For example, if a utility company does not have enough operators to manage a power plant, it may be able to borrow trained operators from another company to ensure that the power plant stays online.
So far, utilities and network operators have managed to work independently. A handful of coronavirus cases have been reported in power plants, but have not yet compromised the ability of these facilities to provide energy. The challenges of operating a skeleton-based power plant are partially offset by reduced power requirements as businesses are closed and more people work from home, says Robert Hebner, director of the Center for Electromechanics at the University of Texas. "The reduced electricity requirement gives the utilities a little air to breathe," says Hebner.