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Storms, food and working from home: Utility leaders discuss unique ways they dealt with COVID-19

Photo courtesy Entergy Corp.

The coronavirus pandemic has gripped the usually short U.S. nationwide attention span for the past three months, with a shutdown that impacted every facet of economic and personal life. Some companies had to furlough or lay off employees while they went into dormancy, while others figured out to stay safe and in business while reducing scale dramatically.

The electric utilities could do neither, for their everyday relevance and responsibility only grew as American lives otherwise went into shutdown mode.

The Power Engineering free webcast, “Managing your Workforce during a Pandemic” offered three high-level glimpses into the utility response to COVID-19 challenges. ComEd President and COO Terry Donnelly, Entergy Corp. COO and Executive Vice President Paul Hinnenkamp and Derin Blumh, chief technical officer for Grant County Public Utility District in Washington state.

Every utility has a similar take on Life During Coronavirus Time, but each of the panelists also offered extremely unique stories on how they dealt with it, given their geographical location, proximity to COVID hotspots and manpower challenges. (The one-hour webcast is up for a year and you can register for free here).

Hinnenkamp

New Orleans-based Entergy, for example, has had a pandemic response plan in place since 2007. Yet its headquarter city was especially hit hard by the sweeping infection, and two major storms hit within its service territory within a matter of two weeks this spring.

“It was a heck of a challenge,” Hinnenkamp recalled. “There was just so many issues from a logistics perspective.”

Deploying as many as 5,000 crew members to badly hit storm areas, while maintain safe distancing, was a big one. Another, considered less formidable only a year ago, was simply finding food and lodging for these crews while keeping them safe from each other as much as the public.

“It was one person per room, so we had to have twice the number of rooms. But these were remote communities so it was not the big chain hotels, more mom and pop….there was quite a bit of work reaching out to them,” Hinnenkamp said. “Restaurants were shut down, and they had to staff up.”

MERS virus, Meadle-East Respiratory Syndrome coronavirus

Food was a huge obstacle. Usually utilities set up tents and feed crews via buffet style offerings. COVID make that idea icky, but boxed lunches were the rule and they even considered MREs-military-style Meals Ready to Eat-for a time.

Terry Donnelly
Donnelly

ComEd is the largest utility in Illinois and based in Chicago. It’s home base of Cook County was ground zero for the coronavirus in that state, with 70 percent of all confirmed cases.

Crisis often creates innovation and also collaboration in previously unknown ways. Donnelly recalled how ComEd helped connect remote First Responder sites utilizing its Mobile Bridge, and also found a distillery willing to adapt its work flow and make hand sanitizer.

Grant County PUD, just on the east side of the Cascades, did not have a pandemic response plant in place, noted Blumh, who just took the CTO reins there two years ago. Due to its proximity to the first flare up of COVID-19 in the U.S., in northwest Washington, the municipal utility was forced to deploy a holistic response fast.

Blumh

Grant County PUD spun together a fully operational, fully remote call center within days.

“We were small but we were super nimble,” Blumh pointed out during the webcast.

Click here to register for free and hear the entire one-hour webcast on how ComEd, Entergy and Grant County PUD innovated their ways through the initial COVID-19 response.

(Rod Walton is content director for Power Engineering and POWERGEN International. He can be reached at 918-831-9177 and [email protected]).