While public power utilities and the broader electricity industry have successfully responded to the COVID-19 pandemic, the crisis highlights several issues that need to be addressed once the immediate threat of the pandemic has receded, said Joy Ditto, President and CEO of the American Public Power Association, on April 15.
Those issues include access to testing and personal protective equipment (PPE) and recognizing the essential role that utility workers play in such crises, Ditto said during the Energy Bar Association’s 2020 Annual Meeting & Conference. Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, EBA turned the event into a virtual conference.
Ditto participated on a panel, “Managing Through COVID-19: How Utilities Are Grappling with the Health Crisis,” along with Tom Kuhn, CEO of the Edison Electric Institute, and James Matheson, CEO of the National Rural Electric Cooperative Association, which was moderated by Emily Fisher, General Counsel and Corporate Secretary at EEI.
While plans for a pandemic have been in place for quite some time, “given the panoply of issues that we have to cover on a daily basis, we still had to learn some things as we’ve gone along in response to COVID-19,” Ditto pointed out.
“I remember when I was at APPA previously having conversations with our engineering team about pandemic response,” she said.
Prior to being named president and CEO of APPA, Ditto was the president and CEO of the Utilities Technology Council and before that she was the senior vice president for legislative and political affairs at APPA.
The Electricity Subsector Coordinating Council (ESCC), which serves as the principal liaison between the federal government and the electric power industry on national level response issues such as pandemics, has been extremely useful for the power sector as it strategizes ways in which to respond to COVID-19, Ditto said.
The ESCC is comprised of the CEOs that represent all segments of the industry, including investor-owned electric companies, electric cooperatives, and public power utilities in the U.S. and Canada. Kevin Wailes, administrator and CEO of Lincoln Electric System, serves as co-chair of the ESCC, and several other public power members also sit on the group. Ditto serves on the ESCC Steering Committee.
Testing, PPE and sequestering mission-essential workers
With respect to the question of access to testing and PPE for the electricity industry, Ditto said that the power sector “is being forced to be innovative and getting creative,” particularly with respect to PPE.
The sector has developed its own scenarios for sequestration “and making sure that the most critical workers can continue to work even without testing. But that’s not ideal. It certainly puts more risk on our system than we’d like to bear and surely that the American public would like to bear,” she said. “We need to continue to deal with this issue until it’s resolved.”
Once the pandemic threat dissipates and there is a review as to what can be done more effectively in future crises, more interaction between the Department of Homeland Security, Department of Energy and the Centers for Disease Control at the very beginning about criticality, essential workers and creating guidance that is appropriate is warranted, Ditto said.
A lessons-learned exercise could look at “how we ensure that we can get our work done in order to keep the ventilators running, to keep the hospitals up and running,” as well as electricity flowing to other segments of the economy, she said.
“I think that’s something we’ll need to bring forward even after this immediate crisis is over.”
APPA and several other energy industry trade associations and unions on April 3 sent a letter to organizations representing state and local governments asking them to give mission-essential workers a higher priority when it comes to testing and PPE. APPA and the power sector acknowledge that healthcare workers should have first access to PPE.
While utility sector supply chain issues have typically involved big equipment like transformers or in more recent years, cybersecurity and components imported from other countries, the COVID-19 pandemic presents a new type of supply chain challenge involving PPE, testing and cleaning disinfectants, Ditto noted.
“It’s an interesting shift in terms of our short-term supply chain focus,” she said.
There may be a longer-term conversation and retrenchment of domestic manufacturing in general, Ditto said. “That could be a benefit to our sector in the longer term.” If the U.S. ramps up manufacturing of things like communications components that could help lessen concerns about cybersecurity issues and the importation of components.
Meanwhile, public power utilities are sequestering mission-essential workers, Ditto noted. Those utilities include the New York Power Authority and the City of Tallahassee’s utility. California public power utility SMUD and the City of Grand Island Utilities Department in Nebraska have made similar moves.
Ditto said that public power utility workers have been “very happy to do their jobs for the good of the public. Even when they might have families they’re leaving behind and they’re concerned,” these workers are stepping up and “doing their duty, which is really heartening.”
Helping customers deal with financial fallout from the pandemic
Public power utilities and the rest of the power sector are taking a number of actions to help their customers who are facing financial hardships during the pandemic.
Among the steps taken by public power utilities is suspending customer disconnects and reducing customers’ electric bills.
Ditto pointed out that the size of APPA’s members varies widely, “so their ability to absorb these types of fluctuations in revenue are very different.”
Another variable is the fuel mix of a public power utility. If a utility has the benefit of having excess revenues because of its fuel mix “they may have some excess revenue that they can really contribute back and take care of their communities a little bit more aggressively than others are maybe able to absorb.”
“This is not a one size fits all for every utility in terms of how they’re going to be able to respond to their community’s needs,” she said.
“Our number one focus is to be able to provide reliable, affordable electricity as safely as possible,” she noted.
Ditto said that “it’s a hard conversation to have around the financial implications but looking a little bit longer term we certainly want to make sure that our electric service continues to be reliable, affordable and safe and so this conversation does need to occur.”
As part of its advocacy efforts in response to the pandemic, APPA may ask “in the short term for some bridge loans to enable some of our members to perhaps get past this squeeze.”