Grid operators cancel travel, shift to remote meetings, as industry preps for broad coronavirus absenteeism

Source: By Robert Walton, Utility Dive • Posted: Thursday, March 12, 2020

Independent System Operators (ISO) and Regional Transmission Organizations (RTO) responsible for operating the nation’s electric grid are working to limit the spread of the coronavirus, as EEI signaled companies need to prepare to continue delivering electricity with a smaller workforce.

“It is predicted that a large percentage of a company’s employees … could be out sick, quarantined, or might stay home to care for sick family members,” EEI warned.

Planning for a pandemic health emergency “is unique from other business continuity planning because it requires businesses to prepare to operate with a significantly smaller workforce, a threatened supply chain, and limited support services for an extended period,” the industry group told members.

ISO New England on Wednesday said it “has been closely monitoring the spread” of the virus and outlined precautions it has taken, including banning all international business travel until further notice.

The grid operator also restricted employee travel to all external meetings through the end of April, instructed employees to attend stakeholder meetings by teleconferencing and webinar, restricted visitors to the ISO’s facilities and canceled all tours.

Similarly, PJM Interconnection has suspended all business travel for its staff, both domestic and international.

“Our top priorities are the health and well-being of our employees and stakeholders and the reliability of the bulk electric system,” MISO said in a statement.​

“We’ve seen travel bans throughout the industry very quickly,” Mark Ahlstrom, VP of renewable resources for NextEra Energy Resources, said on a panel at the IREC Vision Summit on Wednesday, while presenting via webcast.

Ahlstrom works very closely with system operators, and “the ISO, RTO folks have really been the first to lock down because of their concerns about their control responsibilities and their liability.”

As the grid operator for much of the Mid-Atlantic, PJM said all stakeholder meetings and trainings would be held via WebEx “for at least the upcoming two weeks” and then reevaluated on a weekly basis.​ PJM also canceled the first three weeks of an Operator Seminar which had been scheduled to begin in Baltimore on March.

The Midcontinent ISO (MISO) has converted stakeholder meetings to WebEx and conference call formats, suspended visits to its facilities, and halted non-essential travel.

In the West, the California ISO ​has implemented “temporary restrictions” on all in-person meetings at its offices and at off-site venues, and said scheduled in-person meetings will be conducted as teleconference or webinars when possible. All tours to ISO facilities have been canceled through March and all non-essential business travel was suspended for the grid operator’s employees.

“Until more is known about the origin, transmission, and treatment of the virus, the ISO is taking necessary proactive steps to protect the health and safety of our staff, our stakeholders and our customers, while safeguarding the critical infrastructure of the power grid and energy market,” ISO President and CEO Steve Berberich said in a statement.

Berberich said that while the new protocols “may be an inconvenience … continued reliable operation of the electrical system is our company’s first priority.”

The North American Electric Reliability Corp. (NERC) issued a public alert on contingency planning, and has asked registered entities “to report the status of their emergency pandemic plans.”  Responses are due March 20 and an informational report will be filed with the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission.

NERC’s alert warned electric entities to “anticipate and prepare for coronavirus-themed opportunistic social engineering attacks.”

EEI officials say utilities have already seen a rise in phishing attempts and scams related to the virus. However, previous planning related to Y2K, the 2003 severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS) in 2003 and the H1N1 flu pandemic in 2009, means the utility sector is prepared.

“This is one of many scenarios our companies have planned for, for a long time,” EEI Vice President of Security and Preparedness Scott Aaronson told Utility Dive.

EEI has canceled or postponed all meetings through April 30, and instead plans to enhance webinars and other outreach in the short-term.

“This was a difficult decision, but we feel it is best to err on the side of caution as this situation rapidly evolves,” the group said in a statement.

Iulia Gheorghiu contributed to the reporting.