The COVID-19 pandemic has offered grid operators invaluable lessons in how they run their systems and plan for major crises, PJM Senior Vice President Michael Bryson told a Federal Energy Regulatory Commission conference exploring the impacts of COVID-19 on the energy industry.
Bryson joined other utility and energy industry leaders on July 8 to offer their experiences, strategies and lessons learned in dealing with the COVID-19 pandemic as part of FERC’s two-day Technical Conference on the Impacts of COVID-19 on the Energy Industry, conducted via teleconference.
Bryson was part of the event’s opening panel on System Operations and Planning Challenges Tuesday. The three-hour panel covered how the energy sector has mustered adequate resources, defended against increased cybersecurity threats, and collaborated with industry peers, healthcare experts and government officials to protect worker health and maintain reliable operations. FERC Chairman Neil Chatterjee led the session, with Commissioners Richard Glick, Bernard McNamee and James Danly also participating.
Planning for the Unexpected
In his testimony, Bryson noted that PJM was experienced in pandemic planning, but that an event of such magnitude and scope is something you have to learn from and adjust as you go.
“Although the COVID-19 pandemic was certainly not foreseeable, planning and operating through a pandemic was not a totally new subject to PJM and the industry,” Bryson said. Having first adopted a pandemic preparation plan in 2006, PJM gained experience during the Sudden Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS) epidemic in 2009, and contributed to the team that drafted industry guidance in 2010 for the North American Electric Reliability Corporation (NERC).
That experience was essential when the pandemic arrived in force in late winter. PJM took early action to limit campus access, preserve critical operations and protect employees and stakeholders, particularly the control room operators who run the system 24/7.
Highlights included PJM’s rapid and unprecedented transition in March to most employees working remotely and the creation of a fully operational third control room, home for nearly 11 weeks to a sequestered operator workforce.
“PJM secured system operations, handled all of the evolving impacts to our employees and stakeholders and health issues,” Bryson said. “We focused on information sharing and really responding to member needs, all in consultation with an epidemiologist and public officials.”
Essential Industry & Government Coordination
Bryson described the extraordinary collaboration among staff, stakeholders, government entities and other regional transmission organizations. That coordination continues through organizations, including the Electricity Subsector Coordinating Council, where participants have continuously refined and shared best practices and lessons learned in responding to the constantly evolving pandemic. This has better prepared PJM and others to combat heightened cybersecurity attacks, respond to operational challenges and plan for flexible, conservative approaches to return-to-campus plans through the fall and beyond.
Collaboration is essential, because this – and other major events – present challenges that weren’t contemplated, such as 90 percent of PJM’s staff working from home for months at a time. While the utility sector’s historic pandemic planning experience has proved to be useful, “in many ways, we have been at some level building the plane as we are flying it, because this virus has had so many uncertainties surrounding it and just proven to be so extraordinary in its depth,” said James B. Robb, President and Chief Executive Officer of NERC. NERC operates as an electric reliability organization to improve the reliability and security of the bulk power system in North America.
Preparing for the Future
Looking ahead, PJM continues to prepare for an incremental return-to-campus plan after Labor Day, Bryson said. PJM does not anticipate difficulty in maintaining sufficient available generation, even with higher-than-average planned maintenance outages anticipated this fall.
Given the unknown depth and breadth of COVID-19 future impacts in the absence of a vaccine, FERC commissioners asked the eight panelists to lend perspectives on how best to prepare for secure operations and planning.
“The pandemic experience has changed how we operate,” Bryson said. PJM will continue to operate three control rooms and maintain a “bench operator” program to establish a reserve of trained operators who can be called on in an emergency he said.
Bryson said pandemic planning and coordination must continue to focus on secure operations and to update plans to account for sequestration procedures, addressing secure and accessible availability of personal protective equipment and accessible virus testing.
An “area that FERC and the government partners can help with is the ability to test frequently. We are going to have to figure that out,” Bryson said. While PJM had a team of operators who volunteered for a sequestration period that lasted up to 10 weeks for some, with only initial testing required, more tests would be required to move operators in and out of sequestration in the future.
Mirroring feedback from other panel participants from across electric, pipeline and generator sectors, Bryson also cited cybersecurity as a growing threat in the wake of COVID-19, including increased attempts regarding cyber phishing, malware and ransomware.
“PJM will continue to maintain all normal cybersecurity operation and work with government and commercial partners to get up-to-date threat and intelligence information,” he said.
Load Forecast Studies Evolving
Load forecasting for the nation’s largest grid continues to evolve to reflect declines since March due to industrial/commercial shutdowns that more than offset the new work-from-home residential demand. Demand is increasing as the summer heats up and home cooling needs ramp up. Since March, daily peak demand fell between 8 and 10 percent through April, accelerating to between 12 and 14 percent during the first half of May. Demand has moved closer to normal levels in June but is still below what would be expected.
Asked to elaborate on changing load as observed within PJM’s 13-state region, Bryson said “the good news is it is kind of rebounding close to normal.” Ongoing studies of observed load accounting for actual weather, also known as “back-casting,” are required to better understand conditions and trends.
“We need to continue to take a look at this. There are a lot of moving parts already with the load forecast,” Bryson said, citing traditional impacts of behind-the-meter solar, energy efficiency and economic trends, in addition to COVID-19 factors. “We will continue to need to pay attention to that in the future and make those adjustments to our forecast, because it affects our planning, our capacity procurement and a lot of things into the future.”