Fact checker: Will COVID-19 impact the Texas electricity supply?

Caitlin Cosper
By Caitlin Cosper April 24th, 2020
For business

(April 24, 2020)

As the new coronavirus continues to impact all facets of life, many worry it may affect the Texas electricity supply. At least 316 million Americans in 42 states are under stay-at-home orders, including the Lone Star State, which imposed stay-at-home orders on April 2.

With so many Texans living in quarantine, there is an increased need for reliable electricity. In response, energy suppliers have reassured customers that COVID-19 will not impact the supply of electricity or cause power outages.

Power companies considered critical service

Under the nearly-nationwide stay-at-home orders, many industries have been forced to shut their doors. This includes restaurants, bars, and other “non-essential” services. However, public utilities are one of the 16 industries labeled “critical infrastructure services” by the U.S. Department of Homeland Security.

What does this mean? Essentially, all industries labeled “critical” work closely with government agencies during times of crisis to ensure consistent and reliable service to the public. Historically, power and utility companies have adequately prepared for challenges such as natural disasters and health emergencies.

However, being a critical infrastructure does not protect the energy industry and its employees from the spread of coronavirus. According to the Edison Electric Institute, the largest power industry association in the country, up to 40 percent of utility employees could be impacted by COVID-19, whether through contracting the virus themselves, being quarantined after coming into contact with someone who is sick, or needing to care for a sick relative at home.

A growing fear of energy consumers is that their electric supply will stop if utility employees are unable to work at the power plants. Thankfully, many utility employees are able to work remotely. The same cannot be said for the few employees needed onsite to work in the control rooms.


Texas Electricity Supply

Skeleton crews living on site

Control rooms are the epicenter of electric utilities – employees working in these rooms are responsible for power flowing onto the electric grid. The control rooms only need about six employees at one time to function.

As Wired put it, the utility control rooms “are small, covered with frequently touched switches and surfaces, and occupied for hours on end by a half-dozen employees.”

Because control rooms could become petri dishes for the spread of viruses, control room employees are undergoing frequent health screenings and the rooms are cleaned thoroughly on a daily basis.

Many utilities are functioning with skeleton crews – meaning only the most essential employees (such as the control room workers) are allowed to work onsite. The safety of the control room employees is crucial because they are not easy to replace if they get sick. In fact, utilities have suggested they may even ask these workers to live onsite during the remainder of the pandemic to ensure these workers remain healthy.

In a statement to Reuters, Scott Aaronson, vice president of security and preparedness at the Edison Electric Institute, stated, “The focus needs to be on things that keep the lights on and the gas flowing.”

While operating with only a skeleton crew would normally cause strain, some of the challenges are minimized because the demand for commercial electricity has decreased in past weeks. While residential demand has increased slightly, utilities have not reported issues with meeting the demand required to keep everyone’s lights on.

Suspending shutoffs

As Texans likely know by now, they are protected from water and electricity shutoffs under the COVID-19 Emergency Relief Plan, which was passed a few weeks ago. Under this plan, unemployed and low-income Texans impacted by the coronavirus will not have their utilities disconnected due to non-payment.

Additionally, energy providers are required to offer deferred payment plans and flexible bill pay options to customers who request it. Many providers offered these options before the relief plan officially went into effect.

As the quarantine continues and Texans remain in their homes, they can rest assured that their energy supply is not currently in danger from COVID-19. And with the state’s relief plan, even fewer energy consumers need to worry about keeping the lights on.

The big takeaway:

In short, the Texas power supply should not be impacted by COVID-19 – at least, not in terms of consistent electricity for residential customers. While the energy industry has certainly been hit hard by the global pandemic, the control rooms responsible for supplying power to the Texas grid only require limited staff to function, and the control room workers are living and working under strict health and safety measures.

Additionally, Texans who are worried about how they will pay their utility bills may be eligible for financial aid from the COVID-19 Emergency Relief Plan. The long-term implications of COVID-19 are still unknown, but energy consumers should not have to worry about a reliable supply of energy during this crisis.

 

Caitlin Cosper is a writer within the energy and power industry. Born in Georgia, she attended the University of Georgia before earning her master’s in English at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte.

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