Disaster Response and Mutual Aid

APPA continues to monitor coronavirus pandemic in partnership with industry, government

The American Public Power Association, in coordination with industry and government partners, continues to monitor the evolving situation surrounding the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic, Joy Ditto, President and CEO of the Association, said in a note sent to APPA members on March 13.

“One of the primary functions of the American Public Power Association is to bring the public power community together,” wrote Ditto. “Necessarily, as COVID-19 spreads, the guidance is for people to stay physically separated. This creates a challenge for APPA as we work to support our members and the public power community.”

Ditto said that APPA is “committed to doing our part to protect the health and safety of our staff, membership and the public at large. Any and all actions we take as an association will be in an effort to honor this commitment.”

APPA continues to work with its members, the electric utility industry, and its government partners to gather and share up-to-date information, best practices and guidance to help APPA members stay safe and maintain operational integrity, she noted. As part of this effort, APPA is holding a weekly webinar for members to collaborate on this issue. (For more information, email [email protected]).

In addition, APPA is working with others on the Electricity Subsector Coordinating Council (ESCC), Ditto noted. The ESCC, on which APPA also serves, is a liaison between the federal government and the electric power industry on certain high-level resilience and response issues such as pandemics.

Working with APPA, public power utilities, and others, the ESCC has developed a resource guide and key messages -- tailored to electric power industry leaders -- for assessing and mitigating COVID-19. They are available at ElectricitySubsector.org and will be updated as necessary.

Kevin Wailes, administrator and CEO of Lincoln Electric System, serves as co-chair of the ESCC, while Ditto serves on the ESCC Steering Committee.

The Association has set up a webpage that provides information and resources related to COVID-19 and information on how it affects APPA programs and events.

APPA cancels CEO Roundtable, Lineworkers Rodeo and E&O Conference

Due to the coronavirus pandemic, APPA has made the decision to cancel its CEO Roundtable (April 5-7 in Phoenix, Arizona), the Lineworkers Rodeo (April 17-18 in Bonner Springs, Kansas), and the Engineering & Operations Conference (April 19-22 in Kansas City, Missouri).

Questions or concerns about the event cancellations can be sent via email to: [email protected]. 

“We continue to assess all APPA events on a case-by-case basis and will inform members if any additional decisions are made to cancel or postpone events,” the Association said.

Public power utilities move to help customers financially

Meanwhile, public power utilities are taking various steps to assist their customers financially in the wake of the spread the coronavirus.

California’s Sacramento Municipal Utility District on March 13 said that in response to the COVID-19 pandemic and growing economic challenges, it would suspend the practice of disconnecting power due to non-payment for residential and commercial customers.

In addition, customers who are currently disconnected for non-payment will be reconnected, as long as the meter or other equipment has not been damaged and all other conditions are safe, SMUD said.

SMUD said the suspension of power disconnection due to non-payment begins March 13 and will last through March 31 as SMUD continues to monitor the evolving situation.

Customers who are behind on payment will still owe SMUD for service, they will just not lose power at this time. SMUD encouraged customers to contact the utility to make payment arrangements or to inquire about energy assistance rates and other programs that could be beneficial.

The Los Angeles Department of Water and Power said that in order to help its customers get through any financial hardships that may occur as a result of Coronavirus/COVID-19, "we offer generous extended payment plans." It has also deferred disconnections for non-payment through the remainder of March at this time.

Texas public power utility Austin Energy on March 13 said that Austin Mayor Steve Adler and the Austin City Council continue to work in conjunction with city officials to assist residents and businesses experiencing hardship due to COVID-19 and its economic impact.
On March 6, Adler made a Declaration of Local Disaster, allowing the City of Austin to take measures to reduce the possibility of exposure to COVID-19 and to promote the health and safety of Austin residents. The declaration was ratified by Austin City Council on March 12.

Austin Energy said that immediate assistance is available to all its customers. Austin Energy, which manages customer care and billing for all City of Austin utilities, also offers several programs that help customers stay on track with their utility bills:

Customers can be placed on a deferred payment plan. This will ensure the customer receives uninterrupted utility services as they work with utility representatives to develop a long-term plan that meets their financial needs.

Limited income customers and medically vulnerable customers may receive assistance through our Customer Assistance Programs. This will provide immediate and lasting utility bill relief for customers.

“As a municipally-owned utility, I want the community to know we are here to respond in times of need,” Austin Energy General Manager Jackie Sargent said in a tweet. “City of Austin Utilities will not disconnect services at this time. For those who need assistance paying their bill, there are programs that can help,” she said in the tweet.

San Antonio, Texas-based public power utility CPS Energy on March 11 said that to support its customers, in partnership with San Antonio’s Mayor and City Council, “effective immediately, we will suspend energy disconnects while our community bands together to find our path forward.”

Washington State’s Seattle City Light is also working to ease the financial burden on its customers in response to the coronavirus.

“The lasting impacts of COVID-19 are becoming more apparent every day. As our region grapples with this changing environment, we are seeing the financial toll of the virus taking shape, leaving some of our customers in challenging financial straits,” wrote Nathan MacDonald, senior public relations specialist at the utility, in a March 12 blog.

“We want you to know that City Light and Seattle Public Utilities will keep utility services on during the COVID-19 Civil Emergency,” wrote MacDonald. “This will provide immediate utility relief for customers, both residential and commercial, financially impacted by the COVID-19 outbreak. Effective immediately, our customers can set up deferred payment plans if their financial stability has been jeopardized by COVID-19. Utility service will stay on as their deferred payment plans are developed and implemented.”

Washington State’s Snohomish County PUD noted that it has paused disconnections for late payments.

And Omaha Public Power District on March 12 said that it would suspend disconnections for non-payment through April 30. At that time, the utility will re-evaluate this moratorium.

Nebraska-based LES said that while LES has temporarily suspended disconnections for nonpayment, the utility wants to help customers make payment arrangements, so they don’t get further behind. The utility noted that it was offering additional information about making payments here.

South Carolina’s Santee Cooper tweeted on March 13 that because of novel coronavirus, “we will not be cutting off power for delinquent bills until at least April 2. We understand that the virus could create financial hardships want all customers to have electricity as they protect themselves from COVID-19.”

Jacqueline Crowley, General Manager at Massachusetts-based public power utility Middleborough Gas & Electric Department, said in an email that the utility has reviewed our emergency plans – both for electric and natural gas operations – and has hed frequent meetings among staff since the start of last week.

Crowley and senior staff at Middleborough Gas & Electric Department have been monitoring regional and national updates and participating in call-ins held by the ESCC, APPA, the American Public Gas Association and email alerts from the Massachusetts Emergency Management Agency.

“This threat feels unprecedented and isn’t something we’ve dealt with since the swine flu back in 2008,” she said.

The utility has purchased “ridiculous amounts of hand sanitizer and wipes, had the cleaners increase activity for our facility,” with special attention given to things like phone handsets and keyboards, and added hand sanitizer stations in buildings, including the customer access area. “Gas and electric crews cleaned their vehicles thoroughly and now they’re adding twice daily wipe downs of surfaces to their job briefing.”

Crowley said that for practical purposes the utility stopped doing gas meter changeouts early last week since that requires entering a home to relight appliances.

She also emailed management staff that all non-essential business travel should be canceled and that they and their staff should start identifying projects that could be worked on remotely.

“We expanded PPEs and protocols for meeting with customers in the home (for gas emergency calls like CO alarms or gas odors) to include gloves, protective eyewear, lots of disinfectant wipes and social distancing (this is only for gas emergency calls – we no longer do appliance repair service).”

The utility also identified key employees who may need to be sequestered in order to maintain outage coverage, gas emergency call coverage, and our 24/7 station operator for the electric division, with a focus on people who live alone or don’t have multi-generational housemates.

“We already have plans in place for mutual aid with the Northeast Public Power Association, American Public Power Association, Northeast Gas Association and American Public Gas Association,” Crowley noted.

The utility also contacted the town manager to request a local emergency planning meeting to highlight concerns if there are weather impacts in the near term and has updated the Board of Gas & Electric Commissioners.

Given that the Governor of Massachusetts has declared a State of Emergency, the utility may hold its next Commission meeting with remote access options, she said, noting that a number of the Board members are older or have some health issues.

“We’re watching numbers and may close our admin building lobby and only meet with customers who make appointments – if numbers start to creep up in this area.  As long as we have healthy staff we’ll continue to follow somewhat normal operations.”

The utility is also putting a statement together to reinforce its commitment to meet customer needs but will also share COVID-19 awareness information.

Meanwhile, in Ohio, the mayors of Cleveland and Columbus, said that public power utilities in those cities would temporarily suspend power disconnections.

In Florida, public power utility JEA said in a tweet that until further notice, it will not disconnect utility services — water or electric — due to late payments.

Gainesville Regional Utilities (GRU) in a Facebook post said it “understands the importance of uninterrupted utility services, especially as many in our community may need to work from home or self-isolate. As a result, GRU is offering relief to customers during the COVID-19 crisis by suspending residential service disconnections for nonpayment, effective March 16. We will continue to monitor COVID-19 and reevaluate on April 2.”

In Tallahassee, Fla., the disconnection of utility services for non-payment including electric and water will halt for 60 days as of March 12. Billing for usage will continue.

Tennessee public power utility Memphis Gas, Light and Water (MLGW) is also moving to ease the likely financial strain in customers as a result of coronavirus.

“We realize COVID-19 has been very disruptive and is likely to put additional strain on budgets and resources for many of our customers. In recognition of this, MLGW has temporarily suspended disconnections for non-payments until further notice,” wrote J.T. Young, MLGW President and CEO, in COVID-19 update posted on the utility’s website.

In Missouri, the city of Columbia is no longer shutting off utilities for residents who have not paid their bills amid the recent outbreak of COVID-19, reports the Columbia Missourian. “Although residents will not lose water or electricity, they will still be responsible for any current, past or future balances,” the newspaper reported. Columbia Water & Light is a public power utility.

Arizona's Salt River Project on March 15 said, "We recognize the impact the COVID-19 pandemic is having on our residential and business customers. Given the magnitude of this unprecedented event, we are suspending power shutoffs for non-payment and will waive all late payment fees. This applies to both residential and commercial customers. SRP will continually assess the situation during the COVID-19 pandemic to ensure this is the right decision for our customers and community."

Smaller public power communities are also addressing coronavirus

Several smaller public power communities and utilities are also proactively addressing the coronavirus pandemic by providing updates on their websites.

Those communities and utilities include: