"What should not be lost in all of this is to seek justice."

- Gil Quiniones, NYPA

Zpryme logs an open interview with Gil Quiniones President & CEO of NYPA—the nation’s largest state-owned electric utility—to talk COVID-19 response and plans to move forward, remote work and digital transformation, and their plans for continued investments in electrification and clean energy.

“You will see that NYPA will be one of those companies who will be leading in making significant investments [in electrification, efficiency, and grid modernization],” shared Gil. “And hopefully in our own small way, help prime the pump for the economy here in New York.”

Gil further touched on NYPA’s commitment to social justice and minority staff growth and development in the context of the global movement to combat racism.

Jump to Key Interview Sections 💡

NYPA’s Covid-19 Response 

NYPA’s Actions to Keeping Staff Safe 

The Challenges and Benefits of Remote Work 

Benefits of Digital Transformation

Investments in Clean Energy Programs 

Investing in Minority Staff Development for Racial Justice 

June 3, 2020 Interview Transcript with Gil Quiniones 📖

Jason Rodriguez:

Hello everyone. This is Jason Rodriguez with Zpryme. Today, I have the pleasure of being joined by Gil Quiniones. He is the president and CEO of the New York Power Authority, joining us from white Plains, New York. Gil, great to have you on. How you doing today?

 Gil Quiniones:

Thank you for having me and great to see you Jason.

 Jason Rodriguez:

Right, so first off, Gil, I know you’ve been very busy and we appreciate you and your team taking some time to speak with us, to share some of the response to the pandemic, and some of the other things happening there at NYPA.

 So off the top, can you give us, just a high level of where NYPA is at in their COVID-19 response? And maybe touch on how the early coordination across all the stakeholders in the state of New York took place, and kind of bring us to today, if you can.

Gil Quiniones:

Well, we’re doing well today, I’m happy to report that. But this really started with us in January. NYPA…we have a lot… not a lot, we have employees that do quality control and factory acceptance testing of equipment that we buy from Europe and Asia. And so we got early intel about this COVID crisis in January.

First thing we did was we took our employees back home here in the United States, quarantined them, but we stood up an internal task force to plan for managing this potential situation.

In February, we refreshed our pandemic and business continuity plans. And then on March 2nd, we stood up our emergency operations center to manage our response to the COVID crisis.

 We also led the effort in coordinating with all the power plant owners here in New York State. New York State is one of the states where we have deregulated the utility industry. And so most of the power plants here are owned by private sector companies.

 And we initiated and signed a mutual assistance agreement with all of the power plant owners here in New York, so that we can share situational awareness, share resources, even share operators, if there was going to be a very high infection rate to make sure that we have operations that will continue in keeping the lights on.

 We even signed a mutual assistance with our neighboring utility in Canada, Hydro Quebec, and Ontario Power Generation, because they have big hydro electric power plants similar to NYPA’s, large hydroelectric power plants.

 We also led in the coordination of all the transmission and distribution utilities here in New York. So we did weekly calls with their executive teams, again, to share situational awareness, best practices, resources, if necessary, to respond to the pandemic. So it’s been an all hands on deck.

 At one point, we had at least about 10 employees who tested positive with the COVID virus. One of our employees actually was admitted to ICU. Thankfully, the employee survived and recovered. And we peaked at around, 30 or so employees that had to self-isolate and quarantine.

 So it was a challenging few weeks in March and April, but we’re now at a good spot where we have zero positive at this point, and about nine remaining in quarantine, but really working from home. So they’re doing well. 

So we’re in a good spot as a company, we’re already starting our return to work.

 Now, it’s good to recall that when this was going on, the first thing we did, also, and we were probably one of the first ones in the nation, if not the first, to sequester in place the operators in our power plants and in our transmission control centers, about 85 of them. The first group stayed for four weeks, about 30 days. 

And then there was a second group that also stayed for another four weeks. So they stayed at our sites, they live in RVs, and make sure that they were protected in a maximum way. Because they’re akin to pilots or air traffic controllers in our business. And those are the kinds of employees that we cannot afford to be quarantined or infected by COVID.

 Jason Rodriguez:

So, you touched on this a little bit there at the end. So what were some of the biggest challenges there to kind of keeping employees safe?

 Gil Quiniones:

So, that was our number one priority is to protect the health and safety of our employees. And so very early on, we were probably one of the first one who started the work from home. If you recall, there was a hotspot in a city here called New Rochelle, which is just North of New York City. And our headquarters in White Plains is probably five, seven miles from New Rochelle. And we have a lot of employees who lived in and around the area. So we asked those employees not come in, but to work from home.

We banned all travel even within the state, so travel to our power plant sites, because we did not want to inadvertently contaminate employees Upstate from employees Downstate.

 We did all of the recommended guidelines by the CDC and our New York State Department of Health in terms of hygiene, disinfecting, social distancing, wearing of mask, all of that, we did that.

 And very quickly, in early March, less than five days, we were able to implement a work from home strategy. So, the majority of our employees, really, except those who continue to have to run the power plants and our transmission system, have been working from home since March, and we’ve done that successfully.

 Now, we needed to protect them in their homes and in their community. So a lot of training, a lot of reminders to make sure that they are continuing to practice good hygiene. We sent mask and we sent PPEs at their home to make sure that they continue to wear them.

 If they have to go to our offices or sites, we check their temperature first at the gate or at the entrance. We send, every morning, to our employees, a short survey, a five question survey electronically, so that even employees who are working from home, we know if they are, if they are showing symptoms or feeling certain symptoms, then we can arrange for their testing.

 We’re fortunate that we are in New York State who really ramped up, very quickly, its capacity to do testing. So, for example, today, New York State does about 50,000 testing a day. And that’s been good for our employees, because once you know who’s positive, then you can isolate them from infecting others.

 So it’s been a full court press when it comes to protecting the health and safety of our employees.

 Jason Rodriguez:

Thank you. In terms of the remote working, what were the challenges to moving them to remote, but also what have been the benefits that you have seen? And overall some of the employee response, I think that’s excellent that you’re getting to survey them and test them. But we’d love to hear some of the anecdotes you’ve heard early in terms of benefits or challenges of going to remote work in such a short period. 

Gil Quiniones:

Yes. The challenge was we had to do it very quickly, and we did it in less than five days. And we had to equip everyone with what ever they needed to be able to work from home. We had a lot of wonderful discoveries in doing that process.

One, we discovered that there are things that not only we can do from home, but in some cases it’s better doing certain tasks from home. We were able to force to streamline our processes, the usual bureaucracies of signing paperwork that goes up… like 12 people have to sign it before it goes to me for my final signature, those kinds of things. And now we can turn around within a day through an electronic process.

So we would never go back to certain things that we used to do in the past. The challenge, of course, is that we’re all social beings, and you kind of miss your co-workers. You see them in Zoom, like what we’re doing now, or a WebEx, but it’s different. So, to me, I think that’s the challenge.

Jason Rodriguez:

Excellent. A quick follow up there. Would you say that the digital transformation that you guys have led on since the beginning, do you think some of those lessons are it’s actually helped that transition to work from home?

 Gil Quiniones:

Absolutely. I mean, this crisis validated our strategy that we really decided back in 2014. 2014 we decided we were going to invest in digital transformation and aspire to be the first end-to-end digital utility. 

All of those investments paid off in spades, because we were able to continue to be productive, even working from home. And we were able to generate and distribute, transmit electricity safely and reliably during this entire process.

Gil Quiniones:

So, absolutely. And we are going to double down and accelerate and invest more in digital technology over time. I think you’ll see a reality at NYPA and maybe in other utilities, that we will have three types of employees. Those that will have to go to work five days a week or on shifts. Those that will have to go back on a part time basis. And then those who will continue to substantially work from home.

 And I actually just had a meeting this morning with my executive team on how do we equip them with the right equipment and systems, those three types of employees going forward in what we’re calling our new normal. And, I think it’s the way to go. And I actually think it will boost the productivity of our employees giving them the necessary flexibility to do their work as successfully as they can.

 Jason Rodriguez:

Got it. Yes, it’s a lot of the feedback we’ve been hearing, being able to move forward with a lot of positive change. 

And so shifting the conversation a little bit to electrification and sustainability, clean energy, NYPA has also been leading there for a long time. How do you guys view this transformation on clean technology, given the state of the pandemic? What are some of the decisions you guys are looking to make for those plans?

 Gil Quiniones:

Yes, well, the onset of the pandemic, because of the unknowns, we had to hunker down, pause and hunker down, and that’s what we did. And we paused all of our capital program, our ONM programs. We made sure that we would have enough capacity and liquidity and flexibility as a utility.

 We’re fortunate enough that we are a highly rated utility. We actually issued 1.2 billion in long-term bonds in March and April, which was not an easy thing to do when there was a lot of turmoil and dislocation in the credit markets. But because of our credit rating, we were able to do that, of which 800 million of that 1.2 billion in long-term bonds are green bonds.

So, going to your question, we are poised to… and we are doing it now, we’re restarting our capital program, our ONM programs, our customer programs, and implementing and catching up to implement our electrification efficiency, electric vehicle program, smart grid, life extension, and modernization of our assets.

 So you will see that NYPA will be one of those companies who will be leading in making significant investments. And hopefully in our own small way, help prime the pump for the economy here in New York.

 It’s going to be very difficult for most of businesses and governments and local governments out there. But we are optimistic that we can go forward with our programs.

 Jason Rodriguez:

Fantastic. And so to conclude, Gil, I did want to touch on some of the key social issues, particularly racism that have come up. You’ve been a strong advocate for that, and implementing programs there, environmental justice there at NYPA, and really giving back to the community through a lot of actions.

 So, as a leader, and also speaking as a minority too, what can other companies now do to combat social inequities, such as racism, access to healthcare, access to education? What are some of these as action items that you guys are thinking about through this?

 Gil Quiniones:

Well, coming into this week really was not easy. You know, what’s going on, not just with the pandemic, but all the social unrest going on across our nation, coming out from the killing of George Floyd.

 And I addressed my employees through a short video first thing on Monday morning, and told them about what I was feeling and thinking around that time. Because justice is important and no one should be killed just because of the color of their skin.

 At the same time, we need to reject violence, looting, and vandalizing and initiating altercations with police. I think we should all reject that. But at the same time, what should not be lost in all of us is to seek justice. And to me, the best way of doing that is to continue very concrete actions. At NYPA, we believe in diversity and inclusion.

 And so I’ve said to my team and to all of our employees, that we’re going to invest and develop in our black and other minority employees who are already working at NYPA, make sure they can have career growth and development here at NYPA. We will cast a wide net in our recruiting efforts to make sure that we have a diverse workforce that reflects the communities that we serve.

 And that in our own way, we need to make sure that… in the end, without economic inclusion, there will be no racial justice.

 So, to us, working with our communities, working with our employees with that goal in mind is extremely important. It’s part of our DNA here at NYPA.

Jason Rodriguez:

Thank you for taking the time to talk about that and some of the action items. And I really appreciate the time you took today to speak with us, especially with so much going on. And we’re looking forward to sharing this with the broader industry. Gil, thank you so much.

 Gil Quiniones:

Thank you, Jason, and say hello to everybody at Zpryme. My friends there, hopefully you guys are all safe and sound.