Is the power going to go out?
As the coronavirus crisis worsens and cases of COVID-19 skyrocket, industry groups and New England companies that provide and deliver electricity say a widespread outage is not something to worry about right now.
“There is no reason for immediate concern,” said Dan Dolan, president of the New England Power Generators Association. “This system is stable. The system is reliable. But we are keeping an enormous amount of watch over this and thinking through the complications.”
Experts say a hurricane or a windy nor’easter is a much bigger threat to the grid than the current pandemic.
There are three main ways something could go wrong with electricity reaching homes.
First, there could be a disruption of the supply of raw materials like liquid natural gas, coal, or fissionable material for nuclear plants that are needed to generate power.
Second, there could be an issue with transmission lines.
Third, while most power plants are somewhat automated, employees still make them run.
While a major storm could complicate the first two parts, what makes COVID-19 different is that it could affect the third part: the people.
In New England, there are about 5,000 people who work at such facilities. Governor Charlie Baker has deemed such workers as essential.
At the Mystic Generating Station in Charlestown, the largest power station in the state, there are already protocols in place for workers there to remain healthy, according to a spokesman for Exelon, the energy company that owns the facility.
Before entering the station, all workers must pass a medical screening. Access to some critical locations has been limited. In addition, all employees wear gloves on-site, hand sanitizer is provided, and the company says workers frequently disinfect high-touch surfaces.
Some power companies are prepared to go further — thinking about having employees live at work to protect them from the outbreak.
Companies such as Eversource, which delivers service to 4 million customers across Massachusetts, Connecticut, and New Hampshire, say they are also confident the system will hold up, at least for the foreseeable future.
“As part of our COVID-19 pandemic plan, we are also prepared to address potential challenges like a workforce disruption . . . and we have contingencies in place to operate under these conditions as long as necessary,” said Eversource spokesman Reid Lamberty. “While this pandemic continues to evolve, we will continue to take all necessary precautions to maintain reliable service for our customers and to ensure the safety and health of our employees and the public.”
State and local governments in the region are keeping a close eye on the industry. They are already in regular contact with both energy generators and energy providers, according to Dolan of the power generators association.
In Maine, Dan Burgess, the director of the Governor’s Energy Office, said it’s in regular contact with electric and gas generators and providers and “there is currently not an immediate concern.”
“We are continuously working with emergency management, regulators, and the energy industry to identify any potential issues and to ensure residents and businesses are able to keep the lights on and homes heated,” Burgess said.
Scott Aaronson, of the industry group Edison Electric Institute, said there is also regular contact with European energy utilities which, by some estimates, are dealing with a COVID-19 outbreak that is roughly a week ahead of the one in United States.
“There are many helpful lessons particularly in terms of load of their grid that transitioned away from business to residential settings, but overall they haven’t had many problems with their systems, so that is a good sign,” Aaronson said.
For now, power usage in New England is actually down, as businesses have shuttered and untold numbers of people have decamped from the office to Zoom calls, Netflix binging, and baking pies.
For all of the confidence of the industry, however, consumers and investors might be thinking something else.
For example, sales are up at Generac, which has 70 percent market share of the US small-generator market. Their stock also recently hit a record high.
Generac chief executive Aaron Jagdfeld said that a lot of consumer demand is natural disaster based — in California after power cuts because of the wildfire threat, on the East Coast after Hurricane Sandy left many without their lights on.
Those events may have seemed like once-in-a-lifetime catastrophes that no one could have prepared for, but consumer behavior hints that the current crisis is an event people can plan for — at least as it relates to food and energy.
“There is certainly a lot of interest now because more people are working from home and doing remote learning, and they are concerned about losing power,” said Jagdfeld, who noted he is confident he won’t need to use his own home generator because of COVID-19, at least in the short term.
“In times of insecurity . . . people are looking to be independent with their own power," he said. "It sort of has an end-of-days feeling to it.”