COVID casts concerns about utility reliability

This past spring, which was colder than normal, the heating fuels industry had no problems keeping their customers warm despite the onset of COVID-19 and the shutting down of almost all of the rest of the economy. While stay-at-home quarantines drove residential electric load up some 8% higher than normal, commercial and industrial demand was off 10 - 15% which was a big hit to electric utilities according to Utility Dive. And now, amid reports the United States has topped 3 million cases of COVID-19 and now leads the world in infections and deaths, federal regulators are taking a hard look at what may happen to the energy sector as the pandemic continues with no end in sight.

The country has seen decreased demand for electricity, gas and oil since March — though Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) Chairman Neil Chatterjee said a rebound is expected as summer peak season arrives. "Ultimately, we don't know where these trends are heading," he warned. That has led to concerns over supply chain issues, deferred equipment maintenance and the potential for outages.

"Unfortunately it appears this is something we're going to have to live with for a while," FERC Commissioner Richard Glick said.

When quarantines and lockdowns began months ago, there were widespread concerns about the energy supply chain — particularly for generators needing to do maintenance and replace parts, according to Michael Bryson, senior vice president of operations PJM Interconnection. "It turned out not to be a big issue," Bryson said at the technical conference. But looking ahead, he warned the industry needs a consider that it may become a problem in the future — particularly in light of the government barring the installation of bulk-power system equipment designed, developed, manufactured, or supplied by some countries. In terms of core electric components, "nothing has manifested yet that would lead us to sound an alarm," said Robb. He said NERC continues to encourage the energy industry, through the Electricity Information Sharing and Analysis Center and other venues, "to be very aware of supply chain vulnerabilities and the potential for disruption."