With a long history of serving the public, electric utilities have weathered a variety of crises, from hurricanes to tornados and fires. Utility personnel have worked around the clock for weeks after hurricanes have devastated communities. Crews from across the U.S. are accustomed to mobilizing for emergency response. It’s second nature for utility personnel to do whatever it takes to provide customers with electricity when it’s needed most.

While the coronavirus pandemic is challenging utilities in unprecedented ways, the same dedicated staff are stepping up to keep operations running. Since grid resiliency depends on the health and safety of personnel available to support it, many grid operators and control center staff are being quarantined at their work locations to minimize their exposure to the public. While some team members can work remotely, today’s grid still needs the support of highly skilled essential personnel on-site.

Although many of these personnel have responded to past emergencies, this pandemic asks for a new level of commitment. These individuals are rising to the moment and maintaining the critical infrastructure that will help us all move forward.

As U.S. jurisdictions consider ways to lift stay-at-home orders, electric utilities have a continued focus on minimizing any health or safety risks for their personnel so that reliable electricity is available to support local economies as they slowly reopen. Many utilities are also processing the lessons they are learning about what’s needed from the grid and how project delivery can be adapted for long-term resiliency.

With some team members working remotely and others living on-site at power plants or control centers, there is an increased need to have the right tools, systems and communication protocols in place so that operations can run smoothly and work remains fluid.

Utilities have the unique challenge to keep their capital portfolios and programs moving forward through a natural disaster or pandemic. That is where mobile and cloud-based technologies and tools come in to support a utility’s project management organization. These tools and processes allow capital or maintenance projects to progress without having large delays or cost impacts. The need to accurately and collaboratively track change orders, schedule delays and cost impacts requires utilities to leverage automated workflows and cloud-based resources that track real-time data changes and predict project outcomes.

Many utilities elect to have their capital programs or portfolios implemented by an external team. It is paramount for this team to provide results and limit downtime by deploying management tools and processes that allow for flexibility, no matter the working conditions. An external program management office (PMO) can help a utility focus on crisis response while the PMO concentrates on the capital spend portfolio. Ultimately, this helps provide uninterrupted service to customers.

Flexibility is a critical component for utilities moving forward, whether it’s flexibility in how teams work with each other or where the electricity is coming from. With a majority of the country under stay-at-home orders, U.S. electric utilities have seen a shift in where the energy is needed. The major load centers that typically support large manufacturing plants or commercial office buildings have paused as people stay at home.

With the potential continued shifts in load and rapid distribution changes, utilities need to continue to expand the flexibility and diversity of their generation facilities. A diversified generation portfolio and type of plants used will help increase overall resiliency. If personnel are unable to keep operations running at one power plant, utilities need to have the ability to tap into another power source or utilize storage facilities. The continued growth of renewable generation and energy storage will also boost resiliency and diversity.

Utilities must continue to challenge their standard operations to provide the most resilient and reliable power to customers. Although utilities may be burdened by the coronavirus today, hurricane season is approaching quickly and fire season is right behind. Emergency response plans will continue to transform, capturing lessons learned from previous obstacles and building on the strong, dedicated personnel who keep the lights on.

James Duehning is a project manager at Burns & McDonnell who specializes in program management. He is experienced with supporting and leading large-scale electrical transmission programs, as well as managing teams of employees and subcontractors to deliver programs for high-voltage transmission lines and substations.