Could Electric Grids Be Affected by the Coronavirus Pandemic This Summer?

Countries around the world are beginning to loosen pandemic-related restrictions, but what the future holds remains unclear. Very few people accurately predicted the impact of the coronavirus just a few months ago, and it’s no easier to forecast what’s coming this summer. But in energy, there are broad precautions that users can take to reduce risk in the face of this uncertainty.

The concerns for system operators

The North American Electric Reliability Corporation (NERC) published a special report in late April, “Pandemic Preparedness and Operational Assessment: Spring 2020,” which assessed the response of the North American electric industry. Thus far, the report said, the industry has handled the pandemic admirably, but coming summer months will present new challenges

NERC lists a number of potential issues for system operators, notable for the sheer variety of possibilities:

“Should pandemic restrictions persist through the summer, system operators will have to manage, among other challenges, potential generation unavailability, uncertainties in demand, the increased impact of DERs on load profiles, distribution reverse power flows, higher than usual operating voltages, and minimum demands at all-time lows. In addition, storm and major disturbance and outage response may be limited and/or delayed.”

“Uncertainty in demand” is a particularly notable concern—as stay-at-home restrictions are eased, businesses start back up, and companies decide whether to continue working from home, it is hard to predict how normal summer demand will be affected.

In California, first instance, the first heat wave of 2020 recently arrived and “pushed power prices to the most in almost a year,” according to BloombergNEF. With more – and more intense – heatwaves to come, an increase in the number of people working from home could result in more residential A/C usage than in previous years, leading perhaps to greater than normal demand during heat waves in parts of the country over the summer.  

Such a scenario may not occur, and even if it did grids would almost certainly be capable of handling it. But in the face of this uncertainty, it’s important for large energy users to consider potential impacts and steps they can take to minimize any issues.

Beware of changing peak hours

Energy users who typically avoid peak hours through system peak prediction tools should be prepared for peak hours to potentially occur at atypical times, and need to be sure new peak hours don’t result in increased demand charges. Businesses need to keep non-critical loads away from peak times.

This summer, uncertainties in demand could perhaps lead to new load shapes or new peak hours. In typical summers, grid peaks occur in the afternoon and early evening, and one factor in those peaks is an increase in air conditioning usage when people return to their home from work or school. But if restrictions stay in place and there are fewer people in shared workplaces, these typical patterns might be transformed.

Consider resiliency options

The summer puts greater stress on grids than the spring because of its more extreme weather, and NERC notes that this, combined with the pandemic, could slightly increase the likelihood of occasional generation unavailability or delayed outage responses. These two factors combine to make a clear case for resiliency solutions that provide a business power in the case of unexpected outages.

It’s important to note that Enel X does not expect any significant increase in outages due to the coronavirus, but, as the NERC illustrates, operators will be facing challenges. Even a normal summer offers a clear illustration of the need for resiliency—businesses need to prepare to keep operations going in the face of unexpected events. 

System operators should be able to handle the challenges this summer presents, and hopefully the pandemic will soon enough give way to normal life once more. But resiliency solutions will help you prepare for the next event few people predict.

Authored By The Enel X Energy Intelligence Team

The Energy Intelligence team provides talent and knowledge to our customers by making the complexity of energy management simple.

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