2020 in Review: Grid Operations Reliable Amid Pandemic

Together, PJM and Members Navigate Unprecedented Challenges, Maintain Smooth Operations as COVID-19 Upends Norms

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The reliability of the bulk power grid operated by PJM was one of the few aspects of 2020 that remained consistent, despite the many challenges presented by the COVID-19 pandemic.

Those challenges included member utility crews being forced to operate under extreme conditions delivered by tornados, derechos and hurricanes – all while practicing social distancing, protecting employees’ health and dealing with significantly altered work conditions amid the pandemic.

Since March 13, PJM has operated with approximately 90 percent of staff working remotely. Critical control room operators, as well as information technology, security and facility teams reported to campus, with many new cleaning, reduced touch-point and social-distancing protocols implemented. That policy will remain in place through at least May 2021. PJM has held hundreds of stakeholder meetings remotely since that time, and will continue to do so through at least July 2021.

From this posture, PJM coordinated closely with its members, acting as a facilitator for best practices during the pandemic – whether it was in managing and protecting staff in the control room, dealing with supply chain challenges or coordinating with health authorities to ensure that members had access to coronavirus testing for critical operations personnel.

Through the often extraordinary efforts of members – from transmission and generation owners to local utilities and public power entities – the system maintained a reliable flow of electricity everywhere it was needed, from hospitals to home offices.

It was not business-as-usual, but PJM embraced the challenges successfully with the guidance of a pandemic plan it initially developed nearly a decade ago.

Prepared to be Flexible, Innovative

PJM’s crisis response plans emphasize the ability to remain flexible, because disruptive events will often present unforeseen challenges.

In response to past lessons learned, PJM always operates two redundant control centers at separate geographic locations so there is negligible impact in case of system disruption.

As part of its COVID-19 pandemic response, PJM equipped a third control room to supplement these dual primary control centers in the event that COVID-19 impacted a group of control room operators. This was accomplished by repurposing the operator/dispatch training simulator.

Having an additional dedicated control room enabled PJM to sequester a team of operators from April 11 to June 23, when testing for the virus was not widely available. Based on the trending infection rates, hospitalizations and related statistics regarding the pandemic in Pennsylvania, PJM made the decision to move operators into sequestration for a second time, beginning in early December 2020.

The Pandemic Effect on Load

In mid-March, as businesses, schools and other consumers began closing or sending employees to work from home, energy usage routines across the PJM footprint began to change.

In a typical year, residential and commercial customers make up approximately 37 percent each of total load, with industrial consumers constituting 26 percent of load.

But because weather and human behavior are the biggest drivers in the short-term load forecast, it soon became clear that would change.

As expected, commercial demand dropped at the same time residential demand ticked up, driven by workers consuming electricity in their own homes.

Refining the Load Forecast

The trick for PJM was teasing out the effect on load from pandemic-related behavior, primarily social distancing.

Load forecasting is an extremely important aspect of reliability operations. Since March 16, when the widespread shutdown or curtailment of business began, PJM has been refining a short-term load-forecasting method to account for the impact of human behavioral changes on the demand for electricity.

To do this, PJM has been using traditional forecast models to look back at expected loads, plugging in the actual weather conditions and noting the difference in actual peaks and energy usage from what the models would normally forecast. This helped the PJM forecast team refine its approach to forecasting expected customer demand to adjust operations scheduling during this pandemic period.

Operational Reliability, Upcoming Winter Preparedness

PJM reported reliable winter operations from Dec. 1, 2019, through Feb. 29, 2020, which was remarkable for the lack of even brief periods of peak demand.

PJM and its members also reliably served customers this summer, with demand peaking at over 144,000 MW on July 20.

Although temperatures were above normal across the region PJM serves this summer, PJM did not experience any periods of extreme heat. Additionally, amid above-normal temperatures, total energy use was dampened due to impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Heading into the winter, PJM expects to have over 186,000 MW of resources available to meet the forecasted peak demand of around 136,000 MW. PJM’s all-time winter peak is 143,295 MW, set on Feb. 20, 2015.

Enhancements Undeterred by Pandemic

Amid a changing industry – and societal – landscape, the need for the best tools to operate the grid is unchanged. To that end, PJM worked with stakeholders to introduce PJM Tools and other technology enhancements in 2020.

In one improvement, transmission owners within PJM will gain visibility into the system-viewing tool used by PJM dispatchers as a result of changes to the Operating Agreement approved by the Members Committee in September. PJM also introduced a number of enhancements to its Dispatcher Application and Reporting Tool (eDART) system, including a tool that allows transmission owners to more effectively submit and validate changes to voltage limits. The eDART allows generation and transmission owners to submit generation and transmission outage requests and allows its users to manage their outage data by viewing the status of their outages and obtaining outage reports.

With operating enhancements such as these, along with lessons learned from an atypical year, PJM is poised to pivot to meet new challenges in 2021 – all while achieving its Number 1 priority: maintaining a reliable grid.

Find the latest on PJM’s response to the Coronavirus at PJM’s Pandemic Coordination Page.