Bills and Rates

Public power, other industry officials weigh in on COVID-19 response at FERC conference

Public power leaders from the New York Power Authority, Seattle City Light and City Utilities of Springfield, Mo., were joined by a wide range of officials from other parts of the energy sector at a recent two-day technical conference held by the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission that examined the impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic on the energy industry.

“The Commission has been thinking a lot about how this pandemic may affect the energy industry going forward as we recover from the economic upheaval it unleashed,” FERC Chairman Neil Chatterjee said in remarks made on July 8 at the start of the conference.

“Since March, we’ve been seeing decreased demand for electricity, gas and oil,” he noted. “We expect to see demand to rebound as we enter summer peak season, but ultimately we don’t know yet where these trends are heading and we all face uncertainty, especially as we see a resurgence of cases in various regions of the country.”

FERC Commissioner Richard Glick said that the energy sector “has risen up to the challenge” of the pandemic, “keeping the air conditioning running, keeping the heat on, keeping the lights on.”

Glick said that a significant reason for that is the emergency planning and drills that the energy industry regularly conducts.

FERC Commissioners James Danly and Bernard McNamee also participated in the two-day conference.

One of the panels on day one of the conference that focused on system operations and planning challenges included Mike Haynes, Chief Operating Officer at public power utility Seattle City Light.

Glick asked panelists to comment on how the pandemic could lead to long-term teleworking and, if that materializes, the implications for residential energy efficiency.

“What’s very important to us – especially in the municipal world – is not to lose sight of the underserved communities,” said Haynes. “We think that energy efficiency – in home measures in particular,” offers a “huge opportunity to fill a gap there,” he said.

“These recent events over the last three, four months have highlighted our need to really focus on, I think, the underserved communities so we’re going to create that opportunity and work really hard to make sure that energy efficiency proliferates, but also that the opportunities that are made across the board to everybody who wants access will get access to those measures,” Haynes said.

Gil Quiniones, President and CEO of the New York Power Authority (NYPA), who participated in a separate panel on the first day of the conference, said that “energy efficiency is extremely, extremely important in many aspects.”

He noted that energy efficiency “saves money in the utility bills of our consumers and our businesses and makes our businesses more competitive.”

He further pointed out that energy efficiency “is the biggest job creator in all of the clean energy sectors. It’s been hit very hard because of this COVID pandemic.”

Moreover, “if done right, it can also help our buildings and homes be more flexible and really take advantage of that demand flexibility in transforming our grid from the current system to a smart, integrated and cleaner grid.”

Quiniones said that “if we do more and more electrification, we must do energy efficiency. Otherwise, the investment in reinforcements of the grid will be too expensive.”

NERC’s Robb says there has been no degradation to reliable operation of bulk power system

Meanwhile, Jim Robb, President and CEO of the North American Electric Reliability Corporation, said that “throughout the crisis thus far, we have not observed any degradation” to the reliable operation of the bulk power system.

He noted that “our efforts at NERC have focused on three primary areas – heightened situational awareness, active coordination with government partners and industry and use of regulatory discretion.”

Robb said that “basic cyber hygiene remains extraordinarily important.”

He said that there have been a number of key patching events “over the last couple of months with Microsoft products and other ubiquitous products across the sector. It’s critical that utilities keep their systems patched.”

In a recent interview with the American Public Power Association, Robb said the power sector deserves “a tremendous amount of credit” for the way in which it has responded to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Quiniones says power industry is doing an “exemplary job”

NYPA’s Quiniones echoed the praise of the industry’s handling of the COVID-19 emergency.  “The electric industry is doing an exemplary job of maintaining reliable service while managing through the many challenges presented by the pandemic,” said Quiniones, who participated in a panel that focused on electricity demand and transmission planning.

“Trade groups like the American Public Power Association, Large Public Power Council and collaborative bodies such as the Electricity Subsector Coordinating Council, in coordination with government partners, are supporting collective industry response efforts,” he said.

“They include the sharing of planning considerations and mutual aid for utilities particularly impacted by COVID-19,” Quiniones said.

He noted that New York, which was one of the original epicenters of the pandemic, experienced a nearly 10 percent reduction in electric load statewide at the height of the pandemic.

“In addition, New York State’s strong economy, a prime driver of the state’s electric load, has seen a decline and might not return to 2019 levels for quite some time,” Quiniones said.

The reduction in load and the uncertain pace of recovery will have a direct effect on “planning the much-needed expansion and upgrades to major power infrastructure. While transmission planning might be difficult, now is the time to invest in the power grid to meet clean energy goals and to help restart the economy.”

NYPA recently resumed work on certain projects that were suspended so that the Authority could focus on the continued safe operation of its power plants and transmission system in response to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Quiniones also said that it is critical “that we help address the disproportionate impact of pandemics such as COVID-19” on low-income communities, especially communities of color.

Panel looks at oil and natural gas supply

On Thursday, July 9, a panel during the second day of the conference explored the impacts of COVID-19 on natural gas and oil supply, demand, transportation, and infrastructure planning, including the number and types of proposed projects, pipeline construction, and rate filings.

Included among the panelists was Gary Gibson, General Manager and CEO for City Utilities of Springfield, Mo. Gibson appeared on behalf of the American Public Gas Association (APGA).

Gibson, who noted that APGA members are locally owned and governed to be accountable to the communities they serve, said APGA members – including City Utilities – “have taken significant steps to ensure natural gas continues to safely flow to all during this crisis, especially to those with emergency financial needs.”

Gibson said that APGA members have been pausing shut offs, waiving fees and penalties for late payments and restoring services to those in need.

“As a result, many APGA members have had customers request deferrals of payments, resulting in the deferrals of hundreds of thousands of dollars in revenue for some systems,” he noted.

He said that APGA members and other pipeline operators have developed COVID-related procedures to ensure that personnel have the resources and technologies they need so that they can perform their roles and minimize exposure to the virus.

Gibson said that “pipeline safety has remained the top priority during these challenging times. Employees of APGA members have been on the front lines, supporting their customer owners by responding to a variety of service calls.”

 He further noted that municipal gas utilities “have also fallen victim to the hardships presented by this pandemic, having lost roughly $140 million since March” and being projected to realized additional revenue losses in the coming months.

 “While Congress has acted swiftly to provide much needed aid to various industries, local governments, including municipal utilities, have been largely ineligible for many of these programs. Consequently, APGA has requested congressional assistance to help offset revenue losses as a result of COVID-19,” Gibson said.

“Until public utilities receive appropriate support, APGA members will continue to have significant financial hardships, which could impact infrastructure projects moving forward,” he said.

“With these challenging times, there has been heightened awareness of many APGA members’ dependence on one pipeline for gas supply. While no issues were experienced during this pandemic, the Commission is encouraged to ensure that it is taking the appropriate steps in improving infrastructure that allows for America’s abundant energy resources to reach the homes and businesses that need them.”