Tuesday, March 16, 2021

Global Teamwork on Pandemic Response

Share this article:

EPRI enables more than 300 companies to share innovative practices for transmission and distribution operations

In mid-March 2020, during the early stages of the coronavirus pandemic, the utility National Grid sequestered hundreds of its grid control center staff in the Northeast U.S., setting up onsite trailers and RVs, meal and laundry services, and daily medical screenings. The intent was to isolate them at the centers for several weeks to minimize the chance of infection. The move was unprecedented. Just days later, EPRI facilitated a webcast with hundreds of grid operations staff around the world during which National Grid’s Transmission Control Center Manager Matthew Antonio provided a detailed presentation about the steps implemented. In the middle of his presentation, Antonio revealed that he was personally sequestered at a control center.

“It was remarkable that Matthew took the time while in the middle of a major crisis to share his insights and support the global power industry,” said Brian Deaver, an EPRI expert on distribution grid operations and a webcast facilitator. “Another grid operator who was personally sequestered—Aaron Markham from New York Independent System Operator—also shared his experiences on the webcast. You could feel the impact on the webcast audience—and a sense that we were all in this together. There also was a sense of appreciation among the participants, since they could use this valuable information to adjust and adapt their control center practices during the rapidly changing pandemic.”

The webcast was one of a series of more than 20 webcasts convened by EPRI in March, April, and May 2020, with an aim to facilitate sharing of pandemic-related experiences, challenges, innovations, and lessons among distribution and transmission grid operators. The series was attended by more than 7,400 participants from more than 360 companies on all continents (except Antarctica), mainly transmission, distribution, and field operations staff.

“Given that this was a global pandemic, EPRI recognized that every utility in the world was experiencing the same challenges at nearly the same time, so we invited all power companies—not just EPRI members—to attend the webcasts,” said Adrian Kelly, an EPRI expert on transmission grid operations and a webcast facilitator. “This is in line with EPRI’s public benefit mission. Our thinking was that the more power companies could collaborate and share experiences, the more effective they would be in meeting their customers’ needs.”

While most webcasts had a global scope, some were regionally focused. For example, a Latin American, Spanish-language webcast was attended by 240 people from 53 companies in 13 countries. Some webcasts combined transmission and distribution issues while others focused on one or the other. A publicly available EPRI report, Powering Through Together, summarizes the strategies and insights discussed during the series.

“In control centers across the globe, transmission and distribution grid operators draw on specialized skill sets and decades of expertise to implement finely tuned approaches,” said Kelly. “A coronavirus outbreak among these critical staff could jeopardize the safe, reliable operation of the grid.”

“Typically, control rooms are one large space where dozens of people sit close to each other. What can you do if someone gets sick with a highly transmittable and potentially dangerous virus?” said Deaver. “Initially, you could send everyone on that shift home to self-quarantine for 14 days and deep-clean the control center. You could only do that a couple times before you ran out of qualified control room operators—and that was the big concern.”

Through the webcasts, EPRI facilitated information-sharing and insight-gathering as the power industry’s pandemic response unfolded, enabling utilities to develop and adjust their practices in real-time. Discussions focused on topics such as sequestering staff, remote operations, control center design, cleaning, and health monitoring. EPRI polled webcast participants on various practices and distributed updates regularly.

“It was like a global talk radio show, with EPRI staff as the hosts and production team,” said Deaver. “If we were aware of innovative practices at a particular utility, we would call on them to share this information with the group. In many cases, webcast participants were modifying their practices between webcasts based on what they were learning. The level of information-sharing and collaboration was extraordinary.”

“The EPRI webcasts provided a global network that enabled peer review and validation across a much broader base of knowledge than what is normally available to any single power company,” said Cyril Patterson, who manages grid operations at Manitoba Hydro. “When the pandemic began, Manitoba Hydro had to react quickly and decisively. By discussing these challenges with our peers around the world, our company was able to test and implement new practices in a matter of days—and ultimately develop a comprehensive set of control center and field work practices. Without the webcasts, we could not have accomplished so much in so little time.”

“EPRI’s webcasts gathered the best thinking in the industry,” said Chuck Eves, Avangrid’s vice president of electric operations. “They allowed us to make quick decisions with a high level of confidence and weather the pandemic with only a fraction of a percent of workers infected. We also used information from the webcasts to safely restore more than 500,000 customers in storms during the pandemic. EPRI’s work was a big part of that success.”

Insights from the Webcasts: Backup Sites, Sequestering, Safety, and Field Crews

One critical theme in the webcasts was the importance of a good site for a backup control center. Most utilities already have various types of alternate facilities for use during training, severe weather, and other emergencies. During the pandemic, many companies are rotating personnel between main and backup centers to enable regular cleaning. Most have split personnel into two teams so that if someone were to get infected on one team, the alternate team could continue working normally.

Some companies sequestered staff at their control centers, and the webcasts delved into the details—the durations, shift schedules, lodging, and logistics. As revealed in the webcasts, most companies that have not sequestered have established triggers for sequestering, based on metrics such as the percentage of staff calling in sick or under self-quarantine.

“Companies asked for volunteers to sequester, and the response rate was high,” said Kelly. “Morale among sequestered operators was reported to be very high, with an ‘in this together for the greater good of the company and society’ mindset.”

Control rooms have implemented social distancing practices, installing barricades and changing spacing between desks. A universal practice has been to issue personnel their own headset, keyboard, mouse, and stationary to limit the number of shared surfaces. Many control centers have gone paperless. Some have used larger screens or video-walls to reduce human contact. Utilities have reported that most of these practices will likely remain after the pandemic.

“Some companies have voluntarily reported to EPRI when staff tested positive for COVID-19, but thankfully these cases have been isolated,” said Kelly. “There have been no reported outbreaks among control center operators anywhere in the world, demonstrating that the measures have worked.”

The webcasts offered important reminders about staying focused on field crew safety. Even as control center operators may have concerns about getting sick, they need to properly send orders to open and close various switches to enable safe work areas for maintenance. “Given the potential distractions associated with the coronavirus pandemic, it is imperative that we stay focused on the safety of our field workers and the public,” said Consumers Energy’s Grid Operations Manager Kevin Reeser during one of the webcasts.

The webcasts provided the industry with numerous insights on field work and storm response. An example: Prior to the pandemic, some utilities had established capabilities to transfer limited grid control functions to field crews to ease the control center’s workload during severe weather. This option has proven helpful during the pandemic.

Traditionally during storms, field workers gather at central locations to pick up equipment and coordinate emergency operations—an approach that could increase the risk of a COVID-19 outbreak. Early in the pandemic, utilities adopted new strategies such as convening workers in multiple, distributed areas and using digital communications for work assignments, safety clearances, document transfers, and situational awareness.

During storms in North America in April 2020, these practices generally worked well, though challenges emerged. Some field activities occur in tight locations where physical distance is not possible. Others may require more than one person to handle the same equipment or drive in the same truck. Companies such as Manitoba Hydro developed and implemented detailed procedures to reduce the risk of infection in such situations, sharing them with the industry during the webcasts.

As part of its response to tropical storm Isaias in New Jersey in August 2020, First Energy modified its procedures in numerous ways to accommodate COVID-19. To enable social distancing, First Energy set up additional staging sites for workers from other utilities. Onboarding attendance was limited to 10 people instead of about 50 in normal circumstances. Meals were packaged individually instead of buffet style. Masks, handwashing stations, and hand sanitizer were provided. Sleeping arrangements were modified by providing more trailers with fewer bunks each and by assigning one person per hotel room. Many storm response support activities were performed remotely instead of at the distribution control center.

To limit outbreaks among field crews, many utilities canceled or deferred a portion of spring 2020 maintenance outages on distribution and transmission grids—activities that are necessary for safe, reliable grid operations but that typically require multiple workers gathering at a site. EPRI and power companies are examining the impacts of these deferrals.

Comprehensive COVID-19 Research Underway

The webcasts provided a unique opportunity to identify critical research needs. Informed by input from the participants, EPRI has launched a multi-faceted research project to develop rigorous technical bases for pandemic-resilient transmission and distribution systems. The project builds on the global collaboration and innovation set in motion by the webcast series. Topics include health monitoring and testing, disinfection methods, control center designs, field crew operations, asset management, and long-term impacts on decarbonization and sustainability.

One priority is to determine how control room staff can work remotely from home. Some distribution control centers had already implemented remote operator capabilities before the pandemic for various reasons (such as preparing for severe weather), and these capabilities have proven valuable now. However, remote transmission grid operations are not allowed per North American Electric Reliability Council’s Critical Infrastructure Protection guidelines.

“It’s very difficult to set up new capabilities such as remote operations ‘on the fly’ during a pandemic because of the complex cyber security, communications, and training issues that need to be worked out,” said Deaver. “EPRI plans to develop tools and practices to help utilities establish these capabilities.”

Can remote work tools support operator training as well? “Traditionally, a control room trainee sits beside an experienced operator for hundreds of hours,” said Kelly. “This is not possible in a pandemic. Utilities need to train new staff because they may have to replace a large number of existing staff in an outbreak. EPRI plans to examine computer-based training techniques and expand the number of remote courses offered by EPRI U.”

Another key research area is design of main and backup control centers. “How can centers be redesigned for more space and sanitation capabilities?” said Kelly. “What disinfectant technologies can be used and how should they be deployed? Will more control center functions be automated? These are all important research questions that we plan to explore.”

Other research plans include tools to schedule maintenance outages, storm response practices, and storm restoration tools and processes.

“I think we should all strongly commend transmission and distribution operators around the world who quickly and safely implemented creative, out-of-the-box mitigations to adapt to this crisis,” said Deaver.

EPRI’s Distribution Operations Interest Group Laid the Groundwork

Since 2012, EPRI’s Distribution Operations Interest Group has convened distribution grid operators and managers two times per year to discuss and share experiences related to deployment, operation, and maintenance of control room technologies. More than 250 distribution operations professionals from about 75 utilities participate. The long-standing professional relationships built through this group helped lay the groundwork for EPRI’s series of pandemic-related webcasts in 2020. Many of the webcast panelists are active members of the interest group, which is part of EPRI’s Distribution Operations and Planning Program. Contact Brian Deaver (bdeaver@epri.com) for more information.

Key EPRI Technical Experts:

Brian Deaver, Adrian Kelly
For more information, contact techexpert@eprijournal.com.

Artwork by James Provost