COVID-19

Utilities: Critical Communications for Essential Services

There are a lot of industries that are essential during a crisis. Without a doubt, utilities providing electricity, natural gas, and water are in the top tier.

Utilities are constantly providing critical services while facing real-time crisis events, such as predictable storm seasons, natural disasters (earthquakes, wildfires), and irregular disruptions in service (excavation damage-based leaks or outages caused by accidents). These experiences, on top of the scenario planning and drills the industry regularly performs, such as Grid-X, inform the contours of their pandemic response.

For months now, US utilities have been monitoring the impact of COVID-19 as its spread across the globe. They’ve carefully taken notes from their brethren on health and safety protocols, customer and demand impacts, and supply chain impacts. In a matter of weeks, the virus hit US shores and utilities began to implement pandemic protocol that have never really been tested because we have not faced a public health emergency of this magnitude in decades.

Immediately, utilities implemented CDC guidelines to protect workers, suspended customer shut-offs for non-payment, exercised innovation and flexibility in operations, conducted outreach to federal/state/local authorities, and rearranged the utility business as we know it.

The Electric Subsector Coordinating Council – the principal liaison between the federal government and the electric power industry – has been preparing for the worst-case scenario: a crisis 9 months in duration with a 40% reduction in workforce. Meanwhile, the Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency doubled down on the classification of all energy sector employees as essential critical infrastructure workers, who “have a special responsibility in these times to continue operations.”

Beyond the current “worst case scenario” utilities must take it a step further and plan for what lies next – what happens when the predictable and the unpredictable collide? Are they prepared to communicate during such a crisis? Should regular communications be altered? What about advertising? All good questions that most utilities have or are thinking through.

As we head into storm season, imagine a Category 4 hurricane or a 100-year flood on top of a pandemic response. What about an earthquake that severs transportation infrastructure, or a repeat of the wildfires of 2019? Already stressed hospitals and medical health professionals will be under extreme duress. Constraints on a highly technical utility workforce caused by illness and shelter-in-place shifts could be exacerbated. Yet, the power needs to remain on, and water and natural gas must continue to flow.

Utilities must be looking ahead, after the initial wave of COVID-19. Managing critical operations and taking care of the people that perform them is of the utmost concern. Acknowledging that access to supply chains and products that utilities rely on, will be hampered severely or even compromised, is something that requires continued attention. Industrial and commercial load is down significantly across the nation, while residential load ticks upward. Is the system prepared for a dramatic load-shift when industrial and commercial usage rebound due to offices and factories coming back online? Indeed, even mutual assistance – the hallmark of the utility industry’s response to crisis events – will be stretched to its limits.

Moreover, will utilities, who are outlaying cash for employees, communities, and charities recover in time for storm season? Already several energy regulators have launched investigations, such as in Wisconsin, or instituted a separate COVID tracker or tariff, such as in Texas and Illinois, to recover expenses incurred. These economic considerations also need to address on-going rate cases, capital expenditures, system maintenance, refueling outages, and fuel supply issues. How does regular business planning need to change under a pandemic regime, and are those communications with regulators occurring in real time?

Utilities will be judged on their preparation and performance by regulators, politicians, and other key stakeholders. They will also be scrutinized by the media and investors. Most importantly, customers will remember how their utility behaved. This moment in time is important. If utilities get it right – the planning, the execution, and the communication – people will remember it. If they don’t, people will never forget it. Now is the time to engage experts that can guide you through this maelstrom.

The ramifications of COVID-19 are far reaching and uncertain. That uncertainty must be managed with preparation and effective communications, internally and externally. In a time like this, people are expecting more from their utilities than ever before. Plan to deliver on those expectations by preparing now.

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