By Daniel Oberhaus
Two times each day, New York Power Authority employees file out of the control room at the Niagara Power Plant just a few miles away from the eponymous waterfall. They are replaced by a cleaning crew that disinfects the banks of computer monitors and switch panels used to command the largest electricity generation station in the state. Outside the facility, medical workers take the temperature of employees coming in for the next shift and ask them a series of questions: Have they recently traveled out of the country? Do they have any symptoms of a respiratory infection?
This is the new normal at the largest state-owned utility in the US, which is ramping up its pandemic response plan as the number of Americans infected with coronavirus continues to grow. For the past two weeks, most of the 1,900 employees at the NYPA have been working remotely, but for employees who helm the control rooms at the utility’s power plants, telecommuting is not an option. They must be on-site to ensure that electricity continues to flow to New York’s power grid.
A recent study by the University of Chicago’s Energy Policy Institute found that electricity demand in Italy has plunged by 18 percent following the severe increase in coronavirus cases in the country. Energy demand in China also plummeted as a result of the pandemic. Bryson, at PJM, says the grid operator has seen about a 6 percent decrease in electricity demand in recent weeks, but expects an even greater drop if the pandemic gets worse.
Generally speaking, problems delivering electricity in the US occur when the grid is overloaded or physically damaged, such as during a fire or hurricane. Although the coronavirus itself isn’t a direct threat to the grid, should other natural disasters strike, it could compound their effects by limiting the availability of the technicians and grid operators that keep power plants running, coordinate with other utilities, and repair damaged infrastructure.