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What COVID-19 Means for Electric Utilities

Our world runs on power.

That reality has never been more evident — or starkly presented — than in the last three months, as the COVID-19 pandemic sweeps across the world and forces billions of people indoors.

From the Via Del Corso in Rome to Bourbon Street in New Orleans, public spaces that once bustled with activity are now empty as we try to slow the virus’ spread.

We binge-watch our favorite TV shows. We browse the internet for updates — or a moment’s distraction. We work from home and check in with friends and loved ones.

All of these activities rely on a steady flow of power. And the field service teams responsible for keeping our society moving forward.

Keeping the lights on during a pandemic

Unlike most industries, utility companies don’t have the option of shutting down and waiting out the worst of the pandemic.

Utilities are one of the 16 industries labeled as “critical infrastructure” by the U.S. Department of Homeland Security. As people stock up and hunker down, utility companies are working around the clock to deploy contingency plans and maintain service.

Unfortunately, the industry is not immune to the effects of the virus — or the potential for workforce disruptions and shortages.

According to a recent report by the Edison Electric Institute, up to 40 percent of utility employees could be out sick, quarantined, or at home caring for sick family members as the pandemic spreads.

More than ever, utility companies need clear, actionable plans for how to deal with a rapidly changing workforce — today and in the future.

Here are three ways field service leaders can prepare, from automating routine tasks to leveraging an on-demand workforce.

1. Operational efficiency is more important than ever

When we talk to energy companies today, operational efficiency is always a top priority. COVID-19 might be making the stakes feel higher than ever, but KPIs like asset uptime and first-time fix rate have always been vitally important.

Field service leaders were already looking for ways to streamline their operations, from automating routine tasks to increasing technician utilization rates with just-in-time scheduling.

Now, they are also looking at more extreme measures, such as staggering technician and coordinator shifts to prevent infection.

For any of these efforts to work, organizations need greater visibility into the field — and a way to automate some of the more routine tasks.

Instead of manually reassigning technicians if a task falls behind or an unexpected outage occurs, intelligent automation can help coordinators automatically assign technicians based on skills, proximity, and more.

With the potential for technician availability to change by the hour, the ability to build a real-time picture of your operations — and act quickly — is more important than ever.

2. On-demand workers will be a key piece of the puzzle

Since the virus’ outbreak in New York, most of the New York Power Authority’s 1,900 employees have been working from home.

However, this option is not available to the organization’s control room operators. These workers must be on-site to ensure that electricity continues flowing to businesses and residents across the state.

For the NYPA, this presents a challenge. Control room operators possess a specialized skill set that cannot be easily replaced; if any number of them fell ill, it would be difficult to maintain operations.

One solution is to have these workers live on-site to reduce the chance of infection, an extreme measure that has previously been deployed during the 2003 Blackout and Hurricane Sandy.

For roles and functions that are more easily replicated, utility companies are turning to new hires and contractors.

Field service leaders have already begun exploring ways to replace an aging workforce; now, it’s more important than ever that technology helps build a team of capable, on-demand technicians.

With intelligent automation and a fluid, highly connected workforce, organizations are able to:

  • Minimize the impact of tribal knowledge with step-by-step mobile workflows and on-demand knowledge libraries.
  • Build a fast-moving, adaptable workforce that can swarm hot spots and ensure consistent service.
  • Optimize each task and technician by automatically assigning routine work to new hires and on-demand crew.

 
3. COVID-19 will change everyone’s habits

Utility companies are already feeling the economic impact of COVID-19.

One week after Italy’s lockdown began, the country saw an 18 to 21 percent reduction in peak demand and usage. In the United States, local utilities are already seeing slight declines in system demand of 3 to 5 percent.

For utility companies, this means two things. First, it’s more important than ever to streamline processes and reduce operating costs. Every additional truck roll, every hour a technician spends driving between sites or heading back to the warehouse for a spare part feels magnified.

Second, this pandemic will eventually end, and when it does the momentum for advanced metering infrastructure (AMI) will continue to grow. Consumers and utilities were already pushing for greater efficiency, real-time visibility, and reliability. In a post-COVID world, those advances will feel less like enhancements and more like requirements.

Right now, our power grid is old. Seventy percent of the United States’ transmission lines and power transformers are more than 25 years old, and the average power plant is more than 30 years old.

Replacing all this infrastructure will require a massive mobilization of people and equipment, from in-house crews to on-demand workers.

Where do we go from here?

Our relationship with electricity is changing. In our daily lives, we rely on it to power everything from wireless routers to electric vehicles. It helps us create an unbroken line of communication with the world around us, a fact that has never felt more important.

It’s not clear what comes next as the COVID-19 pandemic continues to evolve, but one thing is certain: the need for smarter, faster, more efficient field service has never been greater.