In recent remarks at a Florida Municipal Electric Association (FMEA) virtual conference, Joy Ditto, President and CEO of the American Public Power Association, underscored the importance of managing customer expectations to ensure that public power utilities can continue to operate safely during the COVID-19 pandemic.
It is vital that customers “understand that what we’re doing is for them. That we’re essential workers, but we have protocols in place to maintain our safety” and that public power has a culture of safety, Ditto said on Aug. 3 in comments during FMEA’s “Powering On” virtual conference.
At the same time, there needs to be a recognition that “we do still need to operate our systems and that comes with a cost. We want to maintain affordable electricity, but we also still need to operate our systems.”
That ongoing communication with customers is key and while it is challenging in a virtual environment, there are ways it can be accomplished through social media and other channels, Ditto said.
Amy Zubaly, Executive Director of FMEA, moderated the session, “The Future of Public Power: How Lessons Learned From COVID-19 Can Help Us Better Serve Our Customers.”
Financial impact of pandemic
As for the financial impact of the pandemic on the power sector, Ditto pointed out that rating agencies continue to maintain stable outlooks on public power utilities.
However, depending on the severity of the economic downturn, there could be an impact on the ability of public power utilities to continue to maintain their systems optimally or access capital, she said.
At the same time, public power’s ability to show that it can make decisions locally “and that we are committed to high levels of reliability, but also affordability, is going to situate us well.”
But some public power communities are being hit harder than others in terms of the economic downturn “and that’s the other piece. That uneven impact is really something that’s going to be challenging, particularly for associations like mine, like FMEA, for joint action agencies to try to help bridge some of that downturn that is more specific to individual communities.”
APPA recently urged its members to reach out to their senators and members of Congress to express support for the inclusion of language in a COVID package that was being negotiated by the White House and House and Senate leadership last week.
Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee staff for Chairman Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska, and Ranking Member Joe Manchin, D-W.Va., developed language with APPA and the National Rural Electric Cooperative Association to create a forgivable loan program for public power and rural electric cooperatives impacted by customer non-payments due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
With respect to mutual aid, Zubaly “does an incredible job” when it comes to managing mutual aid and works in “strong coordination” with APPA’s mutual aid team, Ditto said.
In a Q&A with APPA earlier this year, Zubaly detailed how FMEA was taking a number of steps to ensure that planning for this year’s hurricane season was not disrupted by the COVID-19 pandemic.
Ditto also highlighted the fact that public power utilities have maintained high levels of performance this year during mutual aid events while also making sure that their frontline workers have effective protections against COVID during power restoration activities.
In April, Tennessee public power utility EPB noted that several steps had been taken to minimize the threat of COVID-19 exposure during power restoration work including providing mutual aid crews with gloves and masks.
And public power utility Jonesboro City Water and Light (CWL) took a number of steps to minimize the threat of exposure to COVID-19 for utility crews during a mutual aid effort to restore power to customers in the wake of a tornado that hit Jonesboro, Arkansas, in March.
CWL took several steps to minimize the potential exposure to COVID-19 for workers helping with restoration efforts, which were detailed in a “lessons learned” document that it prepared.
That focus on safety has continued in more recent mutual aid events.
Florida public power utility JEA this month sent crews to New York to help investor-owned utility Con Edison with power restoration efforts in the wake of Tropical Storm Isaias.
Ricky Erixton, JEA interim general manager for electric systems, noted that this was the first time JEA has participated in mutual aid during a pandemic. “We’re sending our guys with sanitizer, masks, all these types of things that help prevent the spread of COVID,” he said in a video posted on JEA’s Twitter feed.
Pandemic may lead to influx of workers
Among the longer-term effects that the COVID-19 pandemic may have on public power is that residents of large cities could decide that smaller towns and communities are more appealing, which in turn could lead to a more highly qualified and diverse workforce, Ditto said.
“This is total speculation on my part and it may not come to fruition, but I just think about how larger cities have been hit” hard by COVID-19 and whether that means city dwellers may find it more attractive to move to smaller towns and communities.
If one of the lasting results of the pandemic is for residents of larger cities to move to smaller towns and communities that could be a benefit to public power in terms of attracting a highly qualified workforce, “which has been a challenge for us sometimes, especially in our smaller communities,” Ditto said.
Also, in the context of public power’s enhanced focus on diversity and inclusion, such a shift could lead to greater diversity in smaller communities, she said.
In June, Ditto issued a statement on justice and equal opportunity in which she said that the electric utility industry must redouble its commitment to diversity at every level. “We’ve seen time and time again that this diversity and inclusion pays dividends, yielding teams that are rich with different backgrounds and ideas,” she said in the statement.