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Prepared for the worst, electrical grid workers isolate as coronavirus spreads

Those who maintain the U.S. electrical grid are enacting emergency measures to minimize the chance that Americans’ electrical service will be interrupted.
Image: Downtown Los Angeles behind power lines at daybreak in 2019.
Downtown Los Angeles behind power lines at daybreak in 2019.Lucy Nicholson / Reuters file

Just outside of Albany, New York, 37 electrical grid operators and support staffers are currently cut off from outside human contact, living two to a trailer, to make sure the state’s power stays on.

“We’ve had it in our plans as a hypothetical drill that we walk through every year to practice,” said Rich Dewey, the president of the New York Independent Systems Operator, which oversees the state’s energy grid and deployed those sequestered workers. “But we’ve never actually had to put it into practice.”

While Americans' daily lives have been disrupted by the coronavirus pandemic, those who maintain the U.S. electrical grid are enacting emergency measures to minimize the chance that Americans’ electrical service will be interrupted.

The grid is distributed across the country, with 16 “reliability coordinators,” like New York’s systems operator, who are the main oversight organizations with the ultimate authority to make sure the lights stay on. (The organizations don’t generate the power, but they coordinate its distribution.)

Jim Robb, president of the North American Electric Reliability Corporation, a nonprofit regulator that oversees the risks and reliability of the grid, said the coronavirus pandemic has pushed them into action.

“Pretty much all of them have activated backup control systems. They’ve started to sequester their staff. They’re doing very thoughtful shift rotations to ensure they have time to deep-clean facilities between shifts,” Robb said

Preparation can mean extreme measures, including ensuring that crucial staff members can essentially live at work.

“Some utilities have started to lay in beds, ready-to-eat meals, all of those kinds of things so their workers can stay on site and not have to mix in society,” Robb said. “Utilities in other parts of the country that aren’t quite at that level of severity are getting prepped for moving into that mode right now.”

New York has been the state hit hardest by the coronavirus, and so it is fully sequestering the employees at its main and backup control centers. Each is staffed with 14 operators, plus support staffing for food and cleaning, all of whom tested negative for COVID-19, the disease caused by the coronavirus.

They’ve lived without other human contact since March 24, and don’t have an end date in sight.

“They can actually talk on the phone with their family, Facetime, but they don’t have contact with anybody in the outside world,” Dewey said.

In recent years, energy authorities like the Edison Electric Institute have gamed out emergency plans for previous pandemics, like SARS and Avian Flu, that did not disrupt American daily life the way the coronavirus has.

“A lot of our continuity planning as a sector has its roots in pandemic planning,” Scott Aaronson, the institute’s head of security and preparedness, said. “Those were top of mind for these always-evolving playbooks.”

But Aaronson stressed that the lengths being taken now have only been planned, that the coronavirus outbreak is putting them to the test, including crucial details of just how the virus has spread.

"The details of a pandemic really matter," Aaronson said. "So, for example, in this instance, the details of the pandemic are: highly contagious, asymptomatic patients for 10 days. That changes how you keep employees healthy, and away from each other to ensure that you have this complement of people that you need to keep things operational.”

On March 19, the Department of Homeland Security issued sweeping definitions of which industries constitute critical infrastructure, including energy, advising they “have a special responsibility in these times to continue operations” and suggesting “separating staff by off-setting shift hours or days and/or social distancing” when workers can’t do their jobs from home.

The industry’s official COVID-19 guidance is updated on the fly.

“We're writing that as we go," Aaronson said. "It started as a six-page document two weeks ago. It’s a 30-page document today. It’s probably going to be a hundred pages by the time we get through."

Much of the industry’s planning guidelines have so far come from overseas. It started the first week of February, “when it became clear that the situation in China was more significant,” Robb said. Then it turned to Europe.

“Looking over at Italy and Spain and the U.K. is really like us looking 7-10 days in the future,” Aaronson said. “One of the things we learned from Italy in particular is that incremental doesn’t work. Just expect this is going to get worse.”

One aspect of the response that isn’t fully addressed for energy workers, or for most of America, is a complete supply of personal protective equipment and testing for asymptomatic workers. Testing “is set to happen but it isn’t uniform across the country by any stretch of the imagination,” Aaronson said. “Masks, same thing.”

Securing the electrical grid also means added cybersecurity efforts.

Cyberattacks against the electrical grid are a near constant, though the segregated and complicated ways in which parts of the grid are tied to the internet makes it extremely difficult for hackers to gain the kind of access that could actually interrupt power.

But cybersecurity experts are on high alert for hackers trying to exploit the transition of so many workers to working from home, said Jason Christopher, the principal cyber-risk adviser at Dragos, a cybersecurity company.

The employees who are suddenly working from home aren't usually the ones with direct access to online industrial controls, he said.

“It's not just going from the dirty, dirty internet down into our cleaner, more pristine critical operations," Christopher said.

And fortunately so far, Christopher said, there don't appear to be any major, sustained campaigns to hack into remote workers.

“One thing to also consider is that pandemics disrupt everyone, including threat actors,” he said.