5 Ways Utilities are Helping their Communities Through the COVID-19 Outbreak

Blog posts, Horizon 2020

As countries around the world put plans in place to cope with the COVID-19 outbreak, most of us are spending more time in our homes through social distancing. Even at the best of times we rely on utilities to keep us supplied with energy and take it for granted that power and light will be at the flick of a switch.

But now, more than ever, we appreciate the importance of electricity in our homes to keep us connected to the outside world, enabling us to work from home and for our kids to keep learning, even though they cannot go to school.

We took a look at some of the ways Utilities are keeping us powered up in these unprecedented times.

1. Maintaining a Reliable Source of Energy

Electricity is not something most people think about in their day-to-day lives. Unless, of course, it stops working. Energy companies around the world are reassuring customers that they will work tirelessly to keep communities powered up. Most already have contingency plans that are swinging into action. Some like EDF in France have specific pandemic plans that were developed during the H1N1 and SARS epidemics in the 2000s.

Changes in energy demand have been dramatic as schools, offices and factories shut. In Italy, when businesses and schools closed, power use slumped 7.4% from the previous week. Consumption patterns in Europe and the U.S. are predicted to be more like weekends than a regular working week during social distancing measures. While utilities are experienced at dealing with different usage patterns at weekends, they are not used to large proportions of the population working remotely and spending almost all their time at home. Usage patterns may well be less predictable than regular weekends, making it harder for utilities to balance the grid.

Utilities that use smart technologies to gather real-time data from a variety of sources and can apply data analytics and AI to gather insights, will find the challenge of more volatile energy usage patterns easier to deal with.

Maintaining Power with the threat of Cyberattack

Maintaining the power supply relies on continued vigilance against cyberattack. Utilities are a growing target for cyber criminals, with 54% of utilities expecting an attack in 2020. Unfortunately, these criminals only see opportunity in a crisis such as the pandemic the world is now facing. Threat actors are using Coronavirus related phishing emails as bait and preying on health-related bodies, knowing these organizations’ attention is elsewhere. A U.S. health agency (the HHS) involved in battling the pandemic recently fell victim to an attack.

Even though utilities are devoting most of their energies to helping their communities get through the COVID-19 outbreak, they must remain focused on the potential for attack.

2. Protecting the most Vulnerable

A growing band of utilities are pledging to suspend disconnections during the Coronavirus crisis, maintaining power for people whatever their circumstances.

Many U.S. utilities have already committed to this step, from National Grid which serves Massachusetts, Rhode Island and New York, ConEdison also serving communities in New York and Atlanta Gas Light and Georgia Power. All these utilities are pledging to suspend disconnections, maintaining power for people who quarantined or out of work.

There is a sizeable part of the work force who cannot work from home, often these workers are in public-facing roles who may struggle to pay their utility bills during the crisis. Utilities in one of the worst affected states in the U.S., California, are helping customers who are struggling with their bills. PG&E are introducing payment plans “for customers who indicate either an impact or hardship as a result of COVID-19." While Southern California Edison is waiving late fees, both for commercial and residential customers.

Helping businesses that are affected by the pandemic is also a concern in Australia with the country’s Federal Energy Minister, Angus Taylor, urging energy companies to look after small businesses affected by Coronavirus, and finding it hard to pay their electricity bills.

3. Keeping Utility Workers Safe; Keeping Communities Safe

Ensuring that the power is kept on for people who may be sick is vital. But what about utility workers themselves?

Utilities are taking steps to protect their workers. Like other companies around the world, utilities are encouraging employees to work remotely where they can. For many utility workers out in the community; maintaining infrastructure, working in customer service centers or visiting residents in their homes, this is simply not possible. EDP in Portugal is encouraging customers to use its digital services for account-related queries and closing many of its customer service offices. Many U.S. utilities are following similar guidelines.

Belgium utility, Fluvius, is reassuring their customers that they will always help people who are experiencing supply issues, but asks residents to keep at a safe distance (5 feet/ 1.5meters) from utility engineers.

The Edison Electric Institute (EEI) estimates that as many as 40% of electric companies’ staff could be sick, quarantined or caring for sick family members. This could have a big impact on crews out in the field mending infrastructure, having a knock-on impact on power supply. Some utilities including those in France, are temporarily changing the rules around maintenance teams, enabling them to keep more crews in reserve.

4. Financial Help

Where their communities are suffering financially, some utilities are stepping in and providing the most vulnerable with the funds they need to help them through this crisis.

Southern California Edison’s parent company (Edison International), has pledged to donate $1million to community-based organisations helping Californians who are facing economic hardships because of quarantines, illnesses or school closures. Duke Energy has committed money to help vulnerable people in North Carolina. The Dominion Energy Charitable Foundation has pledged $1 million to aid COVID-19 relief efforts across the United States, lessening the impact of this outbreak.

5. Reducing Anxiety through Communication

In times of disruption, good communication that reassures both anxious customers and staff can make a huge difference. Most utilities have issued their commitments to the communities they serve on their websites. In Norway, Hafslund explains to customers their emergency response and why shutoffs may still be necessary. Others have taken to Social Media, like ComEd’s CEO, Joe Dominguez who posted a video on Twitter, reassuring customers that power will stay on during the crisis.

National Grid’s Distribution and Renewable Energy President, Daniel Westerman, looked to LinkedIn to share ideas on how his staff and colleagues can battle isolation as they work remotely. He also encouraged staff to support each other and to contact him.

Communication doesn’t only have to be about customers’ power supply. Octopus Energy in the U.K. has been communicating its thanks to the hard-working staff of the U.K.’s National Health Service by handing out care packages and treats to staff.

Utilities have historically evolved with their local communities and have an established presence in a locality. As they support businesses, organizations and households in this pandemic, they are forging closer links with the communities they are a part of. We really are all in this together.