Keeping power and people online during COVID-19
Right from the start, the COVID-19 pandemic showed just how dependent we are on electricity. It’s been a test for power utilities to meet the demand, one they’ve passed with flying colors by being adaptable and agile and by leveraging technology as best they can.
During the pandemic, the need for reliable electricity has been fundamental and cross-cutting, for everything from video streaming and gaming to working and schooling from home and, most critically, life-or-death uses such as health technologies, food preservation and public safety. While overall demand is down due to the fall-off of industrial and commercial consumption, COVID-19 has reminded us that the supply of electricity is critical to the stability of our communities. As a German report from 2010 put it, a long-term mass outage could lead to the “collapse of all society.” We’re not just reliant on electricity: we’re extremely vulnerable to the loss of it.
Every challenge presents an opportunity to study, improve and prepare for the next challenge, and for the power utility industry there are key technical capabilities that can be implemented to ensure the grid remains resilient.
Managing the grid in the midst of disruption
Providing reliable and consistent power is always the core focus of any power utility. The conditions of COVID-19 have made that task more challenging. Predictable demand patterns have been turned upside down. Grid loads have shifted from downtown to wherever people have been living in lockdown. And utilities, like most businesses, have had to get their work done despite illness-related staffing shortages, physical distancing rules and more. The old working models of truck rolls and site visits and live customer service have all been sidelined to some degree or other.
That combination of unpredictable, hard-to-manage demand and human resource limitations has many utilities wondering what they can do to get some operational relief and maintain grid stability.
COVID-19 was unexpected and has had a profound impact, but the needs it exposed will persist well after the pandemic is over. Utilities know they’re going to have to manage more diversity in the grid with fewer resources and faster — in real-time — all of which will push the capabilities of human teams to their limits. They’re also going to have to satisfy the shifting and more individualized customer expectation
The sector was already thinking about communications and network technologies, machine learning and artificial intelligence (AI) to deal with longer-term trends: the current crisis has just intensified the search for technology-enabled solutions.
For a deeper dive into longer-term trends and an examination of the technological capabilities utilities will need to have the agility and intelligence to manage, read my article, “COVID-19-has given us an opportunity to test our preparedness”.