Insights on the Coronavirus and the U.S. Grid

Electricity pole

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Most industries over the globe are facing disruptions due to the COVID-19 pandemic. The U.S. electricity grid and energy companies stand to face risks, as in countries across Asia and Europe power demand dips.

With daily life brought grinding to a halt, owners of the U.S. utilities and nuclear plants have stopped travel, called off events and are encouraging work from home. Testing workers showing symptoms of the virus and other precautions are helping to slow the spread of the virus.

Even though the U.S. grid operators say no significant effect on the electricity demand is seen, the situation could change soon. The Electric Reliability Council of Texas (ERCOT), Texas’ primary grid operator expressed uncertainty over changes in demand patterns for power due to the virus.

The virus has affected power demand overseas. The chairman of Japan’s federation of electric utilities and president of Chubu Electric Power Co. have both stated that the overall power demand has weakened as industrial activity slows due to the outbreak. China’s industrial power demand this year may also decline due to the virus reducing factory output. In Italy, the power use slumped 7.4% last week after the government told workers to stay at home.

Scott Aaronson, the Edison Electric Institute’s vice president of security and preparedness, stated that U.S. utility executives were well-prepared with contingency planning due to the experiences in the mid-2000s [with virus scares like SARS].

Keeping the nation’s electric grid operating is one of the topmost priorities at the Department of Energy. Many major utilities across the country have decided to avoid shut-offs. They would keep power, heat, and water on for all customers, which is a particular concern for people who may be out of work and cannot afford to pay their bills. Companies are also suspending disconnections for non-payment, some under direction from officials, and regulators in states like Ohio and Connecticut.

The nuclear industry has maintained pandemic preparedness plans and procedures since 2006. Mary Love, a spokeswoman for the Nuclear Energy Institute (NEI), said that they knew that nuclear power plant operations and the availability of electric service would be tremendously valuable in minimizing the impact of the situation of the general public. 

Workers who are responsible for overseeing critical operations of the U.S. electric grid are being encouraged to work from home, and their offices are being sanitized. ERCOT is also taking extra steps to keep workers safe, encouraging social distancing, and imposing other measures as part of its pandemic planning.

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