By mid-Monday morning, storms sweeping north from the Gulf Coast had left more than 1.3 million out of power in the U.S. Under normal circumstances, this would have called for the mass mobilization of crews to get the lights back on. But not this time.
For years, when the power went out in one region due to a natural disaster or other catastrophic event, workers from elsewhere would rush in to help restore the grid. Due to government-issued stay-at-home orders and the overhanging threat of Covid-19, however, utilities have had to curtail or even suspend longstanding mutual assistance pacts.
“This industry is built on the expectation of helping each other in times of need,” says Scott Aaronson, vice president of security and preparedness for Edison Electric Institute (EEI). Now Aaronson is instructing plant managers: “Plan as though you don’t get outside help.”
At least 10 U.S. utility workers have already died in the pandemic, according to a union official. A council of industry leaders that helps utilities work with the federal government to plan for disasters is advising companies to avoid sending crews into areas with significant outbreaks and to limit contact between workers from different regions. All of that means that as climate change makes storms fiercer and more frequent, it’s going to take longer to turn the power back on.
The council of utility executives, called the Electricity Subsector Coordinating Council, is developing guidelines for organizing restoration efforts that involve crews from multiple companies. The goal is to maximize available manpower while limiting situations that could transmit the virus.
This spring already feels different for Kris Anderson, a former lineman with Duquesne Light Co. in Pittsburgh, who helped repair equipment in northwest Pennsylvania and New Jersey after Hurricane Sandy. That storm cut off power to more than 8.5 million customers in 21 states, prompting the biggest mutual-assistance response ever. More than 57,000 crews of workers from across North America were deployed, but even so, more than 800,000 were still without power more than a week later.