Operating a distribution network during a pandemic provides a myriad of challenges and threats for grid operators

Overnight, COVID-19 lockdowns have transformed our economies and societies. Factories are quiet, shops are shuttered, offices are empty as people stay at home to stop the spread. The IEA’s most recent report reveals that global electricity demand dropped by 2.5 per cent in Q1 2020, but that this masks far greater falls in specific countries since the lockdown.

Demand drops have been most pronounced in countries with large service sectors and strict lockdowns. Italy’s power demand fell by over 25 per cent since entering lockdown, with falls of at least 15 per cent in France, Spain, the UK, India, and the US Northwest.

“This has implications for all parts of the energy value chain, not least for the distribution system operators (DSOs) and distribution network operators (DNOs) in charge of managing low and medium voltage grids,” Anja Langer, CCO DEPsys, says. “However, the most serious threats are perhaps not those you might think of first. Broadly, we can split the challenges into two categories: technology and people.”

The technological challenge
Loads on the grid are changing. In residential areas, many people are confined to their homes, either working remotely or unable to work. “This will both increase household demand (especially in areas where electrified heating is the norm), and increase loads on datacentres, as video conferencing and streaming services see rocketing demand,” Langer adds. “At the same time, commercial and industrial areas are seeing significant drops. This creates challenges for DSOs who must always ensure frequency and voltage stay within operational parameters.

“However, based on our experience in Western Europe, DSOs, are more than equal to that challenge. For decades, distribution networks have attracted ample investment and deployed it well. The assets and systems are generally in place to manage these fluctuations: there is enough copper in the ground, big enough transformers and sufficient resilience to cope.

“That said, there are other areas of increased demand that are more important than residential ones – where the stakes are higher than an interrupted Netflix binge. There has been a race to establish new temporary hospitals and other essential service hubs, such as the Nightingale Hospital in London’s ExCel Centre, or the field hospital in Madrid’s IFEMA Convention Centre.”

For both temporary and established hospitals, it is essential to maintain a constant and high-quality power supply. Often there will be back-up generators to handle outages, but what if a power surge or failure were to damage critical and scarce equipment, such as ventilators? It simply cannot happen.

However, the existing distribution grids in these locations may not have been designed with this sort of use in mind. “What is more, older assets do not have a trace of digital technology, effectively leaving grid managers in the dark as to their performance and ability to foresee issues before they become an issue – surely a nerve-inducing scenario,” Langer continues. “The only way to be certain is to send someone, in person, to check. Which brings us onto the human challenges.”

The people challenge
DSOs are mostly well accustomed and well prepared to face technical challenges. Personnel challenges can be more difficult though.

“Smooth operations rely on the decades of accumulated experience spread across the workforce,” Langer says. “At the best of times this is a concern as a growing body of retirees gradually take that wisdom with them, and younger colleagues lack the same depth of first-hand experience.

“That problem only becomes more acute with COVID-19. The pandemic requires that DSOs minimise both employees working in central control centres, and engineers deployed in the field. This is especially true for older workers, who are more vulnerable due to both their age and higher propensity to have other health conditions. At best, this means fewer experienced hands are available to deploy as they stay at home, self-isolating. At worst, it could mean more employees off work ill.”

So, although DSOs are managing admirably so far, there was not a lot of spare capacity in the workforce to begin with, and that knowledge may be spread even more thinly now. As such, the real threat to grid stability during the pandemic is not technological – it is that key personnel are removed from the workforce and compromise operational excellence and service continuity.

Digital resilience
Human expertise is irreplaceable, and there are ways to get even more value from it and thereby increase resilience across the network and safeguard business continuity.

“Most legacy distribution network assets are pre-digital,” Langer explains. “This means grid managers cannot monitor and control assets remotely. When there is the luxury of time and manpower to inspect assets in person, that is inconvenient. When those luxuries are removed, it becomes a risk: how are utilities to know which problems to prioritise, how are they to head off nascent issues before they become fully-fledged problems?

“The priority for DSOs must be to find ways to minimise the need for the physical presence of staff, maximise the ability to work remotely and share intelligence more broadly to ensure business continuity. That means digitalisation, and the ability to monitor and assess the status of the grid and its assets from afar – helping both protect people from unnecessary exposure to the virus, and to protect grids from employees’ potential absence.”

A time will come when DSOs will have to consider the medium-term implications for their networks when societies reach the recovery phase from COVID-19, and indeed the longer-term lessons the pandemic can teach us. “The focus for now must be on protecting people and essential services from the immediate threats of the pandemic,” Langer concludes. “So far, European DSOs have risen to the challenge impressively – a cause for optimism in difficult times.”