The Dangers of Kicking the Can Down an Endless Road

September 2020 - Teri Viswanath

Springtime maintenance deferrals and record summer heat hint at operational risks ahead

Electric Distribution

The accumulated effects of deferred maintenance may pose a future reliability risk should staffing shortages persist.

In response to the COVID-19 pandemic, the power industry has had to navigate shifting load dynamics, workforce disruptions, supply chain interruptions and rising cybersecurity threats - all while continuing to support critical electricity operations.

Notably, as a “people event,” the pandemic is unique from the previous threats to the industry. Without a doubt, the day-to-day operation of the U.S. bulk power system is highly dependent on a uniquely trained and specialized workforce. In its initial assessment of the industry’s COVID-19 preparedness, NERC acknowledged that the “fundamental risk (of this event) is the loss of staff critical to operating and maintaining the system such that firm loads could no longer be served safely.”

To protect these workers from exposure to the virus, the industry deferred all but the most critical maintenance this past spring. A majority of this sort of work occurs in the shoulder months (during spring and fall) and requires a large number of specialized workers on site to make the necessary equipment repairs. With new social-distancing requirements, all but the most pressing work had to be postponed. Thus, the already abridged season was aggressively curtailed, essentially stripped down to just nuclear plant refueling and priority repairs to thermal units.

For all planned maintenance, there is the routine challenge of coordinating plant outage schedules (to maintain reliability) but also the not-so-trivial task of coordinating the deployment of a limited pool of highly skilled workers. The pandemic impacted the latter to such a degree that the Nuclear Energy Institute (NEI) appealed to the U.S. Secretary of Energy to intervene. While NEI’s request in March mostly focused on safeguarding and mobilizing skilled domestic personnel, they also asked that international workers (who perform these highly specialized functions) be permitted to travel into the U.S. The problem is that until the infection risk goes away, skilled labor shortages might continue to impact the amount of work that can be completed.

Based on their statements to the press, the power industry’s collective pandemic response thus far has been to push off any jobs that could be deferred, reduce the number of workers on the site and revamp procedures that crowd people together. So far, this approach has kept the lights on while keeping personnel safe. However, it comes with the risk of postponing such a significant amount of work that the industry will be hard-pressed to make up for it, especially if skilled personnel shortages persist.

Industrial Info Resources tracks U.S. power outages in real time and its data indicates that the industry witnessed roughly half the normal planned outages in April and May that would typically occur. Nuclear plants accounted for about a quarter of these planned outages, with critical repairs to thermal generation comprising the rest.

United States Power Gen Outages

Source: Industrial Info Resources (www.iirenergy.com)

To make up for the spring shortfall and the heavier-than-planned summer utilization, IIR foresees an elevated maintenance schedule heading into this fall. Yet, assuming that the industry can feasibly undertake this outsized effort, there still is the looming possibly that staff shortages will ultimately prevent the industry from making up the springtime lapse. Consequently, reliability risks will persist until the industry can demonstrably get back on track.

All told, the danger of kicking the can down the road is that the road will ultimately end.