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Disaster Response and Mutual Aid

Public power executives detail how their utilities successfully prepared and adapted to pandemic

Leaders of public power utilities across the U.S. recently detailed how their utilities were prepared to successfully respond and adapt to a myriad of challenges presented by the COVID-19 pandemic.

They made their remarks on June 8 during a panel at the American Public Power Association’s Public Power Connect: Virtual Summit & Business Meeting that was moderated by Joy Ditto, President and CEO of APPA.

New York Power Authority President and CEO Gil Quiniones

The New York Power Authority’s experience with the pandemic started in January, said Gil Quiniones, President and CEO of NYPA.

He pointed out that it is not uncommon for NYPA to have employees travel to Asia and Europe doing factory acceptance testing and quality control of the equipment that the Authority purchases from these parts of the world. “Our employees actually gave us a heads up that there was this COVID in Asia and in Europe, so we brought them back right away” and quarantined them.

In February, NYPA refreshed its pandemic plan and its business continuity plans and stood up in the first working day of March its emergency operations center.

“Since then, we’ve made sure that we keep the health and safety of our employees” as a top priority, he said. NYPA pivoted to a work from home posture in early March “and also we made sure that we kept the lights on, that we would keep our generation and transmission going no matter what.”

The Authority paused all of its capital and O&M activities “and hunkered down” to make sure it knew what the situation was going forward before doing anything.

In addition, NYPA made sure that it had enough financial liquidity. In March, the Authority went to the markets and issued $1.2 billion of long-term bonds, of which $800 million were green bonds “to make sure that we can restart and hit the ground running when there’s better visibility,” Quiniones said.

In addition, NYPA sequestered around 85 employees -- control room and transmission control operators – for 30 days at a time. “We did that for two months,” he noted.

“We have un-sequestered everyone at this point and we are now returning to work.” He said around 55 percent of NYPA workers are going back to work either full time or part time, while another approximately 44 percent of employees will continue to work from home.

From a broader leadership perspective, he said that “it is important for leaders to personally be the messengers in all matters affecting employees. I think that’s one thing that I learned in this crisis because our employees will remember how they were treated during this moment.”

Manitowoc Public Utilities General Manager Troy Adams

Troy Adams, who recently became general manager of Wisconsin public power utility Manitowoc Public Utilities, discussed the pandemic in the context of his time as general manager of Minnesota public power utility Elk River Municipal Utilities. Adams became general manager of Manitowoc Public Utilities at the start of June.

Regardless of size or location, “the way that public power leaders have handled this pandemic or any other issue is really very similar because our criteria for this decision making always comes back to our value system,” Adams said.

At Elk River, “we had the good fortune of just going through some business continuity planning,” he noted. In February, disaster planning training occurred, which utilized an APPA resource.

This was fortuitous timing, Adams said, “because my leadership team already was in the mindset of dealing with a problem when the pandemic came to us.”  

In addition, Elk River Municipal Utilities has been a participant in APPA’s Reliable Public Power Provider (RP3) program.

Elk River Municipal Utilities “would not have been in the position it was in if we hadn’t been an RP3 utility,” he said. “Those best practices and those experiences and the exposure to other things outside of your city limits helped us to evolve into a better utility and we were in a great place to be able to address a pandemic or any other challenge.”

Also, the Minnesota public power utility had established a clear authority to act. When the pandemic hit, Elk River Municipal Utilities didn’t need to wait for board approval to take immediate action and the utility had reserve policies in place and sufficient funds. “We already knew we were in a position to be able to handle anything,” he said.

Meanwhile, Elk River Municipal Utilities prioritized the safety of employees and customers. Essential service and critical functions were areas that the utility had just looked at with its business continuity planning “and we were able to act pretty quickly to pivot and modify our plan to meet the needs for the pandemic.”

With respect to mitigation of risk and limiting COVID-19 exposure, employees that could work remotely did so, while “those that had to come in had to practice best practices and safe social distancing and use all the PPE.”

The utility staggered shifts and created a work environment “where they were better protected and able to minimize their contact with other employees, which helped protect them from maybe contracting anything, but also helped the utility” because if someone got sick, “you don’t have cross contamination or exposure through all your employee base.”

Responding to a question from Ditto on lessons learned from the pandemic, Adams said that “communication was really hard at first and if I had to do it all over again, I would have done more video.” Adams said he heard from employees that video “is a better way to engage them and they feel like you’re taking the time to do something special and communicate differently with them.”

City of Tallahassee Electric and Gas Utility General Manager Rob McGarrah

Rob McGarrah, general manager of the City of Tallahassee, Fla.’s Electric and Gas Utility, noted that early in the year, as the pandemic started to become an issue, “we took our storm plan and started making modifications to it to deal with COVID.”

When concerns were raised that Florida could be hard hit by the pandemic, the public power utility moved into a second stage of a preservation of staff plan.

Among other actions, the utility separated its system operators between the main control center and the backup control center.

In mid-March, the utility took shift workers at the utility’s two main power plants and at the control center and backup control center “and we took half of the team and we sequestered them on site and half the team shelter in place at home and we rotated those folks every week,” McGarrah said.

Since early May, the utility has unwound the sequestration and the sheltering at home, “so all of our field crews are back. Virtually all of our telework folks are still teleworking and I don’t expect that to change until later in the summer at the earliest.”

McGarrah noted that the utility has been hard at work the last few months “to start figuring out how we would manage a large-scale mutual aid event in Tallahassee if we needed to do it under the COVID work rules.”

The utility has been “working with our Florida partners through FMEA [Florida Municipal Electric Association] on how each of us would look at attacking a mutual aid event to make sure we’re all comfortable with how we would do housing, work rules, feeding and all of those things with a large mutual aid event.”

Debra Smith, General Manager/CEO, Seattle City Light

Debra Smith, General Manager and CEO at Seattle City Light, noted that Seattle was ground zero when the pandemic initially hit the U.S. earlier in the year.

In March, Washington State Gov. Jay Inslee issued a stay at home order. “We sent our employees home. At that point, many of them were already teleworking,” Smith said. “We went to what we call the continuity of operations plan.”

In terms of the utility’s operational response to the pandemic, Smith noted that 95 percent of Seattle City Light’s office workers have been teleworking for quite some time. The city has officially extended that through September 7. “I would expect that most of my employees will continue to telework through most of this year.”

As of June 17, City Light’s operations employees have returned to normal hours and staffing levels and are working through the backlog of customer service connections and utility maintenance and capital projects that were delayed due to reduced on-site/in-the-field staffing in response to the stay at home order.

Seattle City Light took the lead role in helping to develop the process for the city-wide continuity of operations plan. Smith has also participated in the process of bringing the city’s operations back to full force.