We are watching the world move underneath our feet. The start of the 2020s brought a new sense of optimism and excitement for utilities. Grid modernization and digital transformation initiatives were integrating with a commitment to a clean energy transition. Innovations in rate design were signaling a shifting business model to meet customer expectations and the growing opportunity to electrify mobility. However, just four months into the decade, the COVID-19 pandemic and resulting economic turmoil have disrupted every part of daily life. Once normal activities of a daily commute, meetings with colleagues, and even dinner with friends seem like scenes from a historical fiction novel.

Much of the media’s attention has focused on the heroic efforts of medical professionals to battle the virus and grocery store and logistics professionals to provide essential supplies. However, just behind the scenes, society’s ability to respond to this crisis effectively depends on utilities. The imperative to keep the lights and heat on has never been stronger as customers shelter-in-place at home.

Utility trucks on rural road. Credit: ABC News

Frontline medical teams in hospitals rely on electricity to provide critical care. Heating, ventilation, and temperature control must be maintained for treating all patients. Life-saving ventilators and other equipment essential to treating patients with acute symptoms of the virus depend on utilities to function. While hospitals have backup systems, many of these would fail if a regular supply of power is not provided.

Closer to home, grocery stores have always depended on HVAC systems, but in these tenuous times, it is even more essential that no disruptions occur in our food supply chain. Furthermore, critical communications networks that are allowing digital work and active social distancing also require power. The ubiquitous Zoom meeting is not going to happen without the tireless work utilities.

Utilities around the globe have simultaneously mobilized to meet the emergency and adapt to the new distance-working environment by deploying business continuity plans. IT teams have worked to develop a robust communication and control environment to allow everyone from customer-care, to distribution operations, and senior staff to work from home.

“For many utilities, the COVID-19 pandemic is a source of major disruption—especially for those without playbooks or contingency plans for this type of event,” says Jan Vrins, leader of Guidehouse’s Energy, Sustainability, and Infrastructure segment. “Leaders are working through new approaches to longstanding processes for field work, emergency repairs, payment policies, and a myriad of other issues that allow them to provide critical services to the public.”

While utilities develop business continuity plans for the remote work of the vast majority of their employees, one of the most significant tests is planning for the worker in the control room or field. Crisis management teams at utilities are creatively mitigating the potential spread of COVID-19 between employees and the public by maintaining social distancing when performing critical maintenance or restoring power post outage.

Providing essential services while staying healthy is more difficult in some areas than others, depending on the level of community spread. The global epicenter of the pandemic right now is New York and the Northeast of the United States. According to the New York times database on April 17th New York, New Jersey, and Massachusetts accounts for more than 330,000 Coronavirus cases or just over half of all cases in the United States.

From Buffalo to Boston, a core cadre of National Grid workers are sequestering themselves and working around the clock to ensure systems remain operational. More than 200 workers across Massachusetts, Rhode Island, and New York have volunteered to eat, sleep, and live on the job. A combination of National Grid employees and support personnel like chefs and maintenance workers began sequestering about two weeks ago. Parts of their buildings were locked down. Employees receive daily health checks, and each facility is cleaned regularly.

An office converted into a bedroom for a National Grid employee. Credit: National Grid

Their work is of such critical nature to the power supply that it is essential they do not fall ill during these difficult times. Phil Lavallee, director of the transmission control center, described some of the challenges to Boston.com, “It’s been a logistical challenge, to say the least, to have a normal, corporate office building turned into a hotel, motel, food service, whatever you name it.

National Grid employees and countless other utility professionals understand how critical their work is during these difficult times. The devotion to being part of the solution to the most significant challenge society has faced since WWII is seen as a commitment worthy sacrifice. In this time of crisis, our world is more dependent on electricity than ever before.

Badar Khan, President of National Grid U.S.,  will discuss their response to the COVID-19 pandemic during a live video roundtable with Zpryme. Mr. Khan will be sharing their approach to providing essential services during these difficult times with Jan Vrins, leader of Guidehouse’s Global Energy, Sustainability, and Infrastructure segment.

Join Zpryme for part one of our “Response, Recovery, and Resiliency: the Impacts of COVID-19” on April 21st at 11:30 am EST.