As Washington energy leaders confront life with COVID-19, it’s worth examining how the power industry — from utility line workers to competitive power generators — delivered “the boring good” of keeping the lights on while America embarked on uncharted territory. Even now, with virus cases unfortunately spiking, reliable power is still largely assured.
In a crisis, we focus on disruption. In the early days of the pandemic, many critical items demanded attention – testing, hospital beds, job loss and overnight societal transformation. What people took for granted as they hunkered down, charged their cellphones, stocked refrigerators, worked on computers, gathered virtually on Zoom and binge-watched shows, was something they expected to be there without interruption: electricity. The ever-present, safe and reliable operation of the electric grid ensured that families, essential businesses and emergency services received the power needed to not just survive but to maintain a semblance of “normal” life.
The future of this essential, quiet service is now top of mind as America moves from crisis mode to the long haul of living with COVID-19. Congress kicked off the summer session with energy-focused hearings, and the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission is holding a special conference tomorrow to discuss pandemic impacts on the energy sector. Regulators want to know what planning challenges linger and how demand shifts and access to capital will shape operations and infrastructure development. Policymakers ask how we should prioritize emissions reductions when appetite for cost increases is limited, and whether certain sectors need a handout. Energy deserves attention, but we must note the good news that reliability is not threatened and wholesale power prices remain at record lows.
As former FERC Commissioner Rob Powelson likes to say, the goal of an effective regulator is to do “the boring good.” The men and women who safely and reliably operate the power grid are also doing this “boring good” because when the system works well, it never makes headlines.
Yet the work behind the scenes was far from boring. COVID-19 brought shifts in demand and usage, price impacts, and sacrifice and complicated logistics to protect workers and keep power plants running — with staff sequestered away from loved ones to keep the lights on. Because the owners and operators of generation and transmission and distribution infrastructure, having prepared in advance, acted quickly and collaboratively to address potentially serious situations, reliable power delivery continued unabated.
The energy industry is diverse and complex – markets and market participants differ and are often at odds on policy. But when faced with the common goal of serving America at its time of need, disagreements were set aside. All worked together to ensure the safe and reliable delivery of power. This united front — called the Electric Sector Coordinating Council — produced a COVID-19 Resource Guide, sharing operational guidelines and risk management strategies that sets a model for other industries to replicate.
As an active ESCC participant, EPSA, with our member companies, acted quickly to answer the call to coordinate industry efforts and federal, state and local government as everyone sought to minimize disruption in an unprecedented situation. Competitive power suppliers also donated millions in financial contributions and lent other forms of support to local community relief and response efforts, despite facing uncertainty as companies that rely solely on competitive market revenues. They quietly continued to provide reliable power at the lowest cost, without seeking special assistance.
Because situations of this magnitude thankfully don’t happen often, to improve upon our future emergency response efforts, we must now capture the things done well, address what could have been done better and especially note those things that may have slipped through the cracks. COVID-19 recovery efforts should focus on protecting health and safety, securing a vaccine and returning all Americans to work. Any energy sector aid should be made available to all industry members — prioritizing reliable operations and pandemic-related essentials such as protective equipment.
EPSA appreciates the recognition that electricity underpins every aspect of our economy and essential services. We applaud FERC’s leadership in hosting tomorrow’s technical conference and hope that the lessons learned and shared can inform how industry, regulators and our customers can all be better prepared for the next event that could disrupt one of the fundamental, though often overlooked, parts of our daily existence. Meanwhile, we press on with the boring good.
Todd A. Snitchler is president and CEO of the Electric Power Supply Association, representing U.S. competitive power suppliers. He is a former chairman of the Ohio Public Utilities Commission.
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