Several public power utilities are sequestering mission-essential workers at key facilities like control rooms and power plants in response to the COVID-19 pandemic.
California public power utility SMUD on April 16 began sequestering critical 24/7 employees that are essential to running the grid, said Christopher Capra, a spokesman for SMUD, in an email.
This includes highly experienced and highly specialized power system operators, distribution system operators and energy traders, Capra noted.
Capra said that the first steps included testing each employee for COVID-19 as they enter the sequestration program. “They’ll begin 10-day shifts about two days after receiving a negative test result. If someone tests positive for COVID-19, they won’t be permitted on campus and would follow SMUD’s COVID-19 return to work protocol,” Capra said.
The New York Power Authority has sequestered 82 power plant control room and transmission control operators. Essential generation personnel are operating in two 12-hour shifts with protocols in place to prevent the potential spread of the virus. Temperatures are taken upon change of shift and at regular intervals.
Other NYPA staff is working remotely following New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s direction. NYPA’s President and CEO Gil Quiniones prioritized communication to all staff and has sent out weekly videotaped messages and regular communications focused on social distancing, washing hands, and decreasing density.
NYPA has also entered into two separate agreements to help ensure resiliency throughout the pandemic. NYPA, National Grid and the Independent Power Producers of New York have entered into an agreement that will enable the three entities and all IPPNY members to work together to share trained personnel, support services, equipment, materials, supplies and fuels among each other throughout the pandemic. Separately, NYPA has also signed a similar agreement with Ontario Power Generation in Canada.
“Maintaining the operation of our power generating facilities across the state is our first priority,” said Quiniones. “Our control room operators are mission critical. Their specialized expertise is needed to keep the lights on at hospitals and the ventilators running so that we are at the ready to help our most vulnerable in their fight against Covid-19.”
He said that NYPA is doing everything it can “to ensure our staff are protected from the virus so that we can keep our generation assets running and our transmission backbone operations going to provide reliable energy for New Yorkers.”
Meanwhile, Rob McGarrah, General Manager, Electric & Gas Utility at the City of Tallahassee, said that the utility has a total of 44 employees who are being rotated in and out of sequestration. About half of the team is sequestered between three sites and half are at home. They are rotated on a weekly basis.
While at home, they are directed to limit their exposure to only immediate family and essential trips outside of the house. They are screened -- through a questionnaire and temperature check -- at each rotation.
With respect to the responsibilities of the sequestered workers, McGarrah said the team falls into two groups. About 14 members of the team are the employees who operate the utility’s energy control center, while the balance “are located at our two power plants and are the plant operators and shift supervisors,” he said.
“We have our energy control center team operating out of both our main and back up control centers. Those that are operating out of the main control center are housing in an office area that has been converted to housing for this event,” McGarrah said. For those operating out of the back up control center, “we’re providing RV/campers for each operator to live in. At the power plants, we are using a combination of employee owned campers and office areas for the housing. We are proving meals from local restaurants – delivered to each site.” Each site has shower facilities.
City of Grand Island Utilities Department
In Nebraska, the City of Grand Island Utilities Department on April 12 began the shelter in place phase of its pandemic plan, said Tim Luchsinger, Utilities Director, in an email.
This requires about 140 electric/water employees to either remain at home for callout or live at critical facilities, he noted.
Nine operators “at our gas turbine/water operations plant are at the plant or in a home-quarantine rotation. Six dispatchers are at our control center or in a home-quarantine rotation,” Luchsinger said.
“Our coal plant was taken offline two weeks ago due to regional market conditions, and a semi-annual planned outage was moved up to accommodate the early shutdown and to spread out the outside contractor work requirements,” he said.
Luchsinger said that when the outage work is complete and the market operator requires the unit to be placed back online, about twenty employees will be required to home-quarantine and sequester at the plant.