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Coronavirus

Colorado’s lights, broadband must stay on during coronavirus. Here’s how utilities are keeping their workers safe.

Pandemic plans are being dusted off. In Colorado Springs, where 7 people have died, utility workers have been issued personal protective equipment so they can make gas, carbon monoxide safety checks.

A network of power lines run south from the Comanche Power Plant in Pueblo on Jan. 19, 2019. Comanche is the state's largest power plant, capable of generating over 1,400 megawatts. (Mike Sweeney, Special to The Colorado Sun)
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With everyone hunkered down to avoid the coronavirus, folks are turning to the internet, streaming services, TVs and cellphones. And while we all need those devices to stay connected and entertained, and in some cases stay at work or in school, there is one thing they all need – electricity.

Utilities in Colorado and across the country are taking steps to ensure that the lights – and everything else – stay on in the face of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Those steps vary from dividing key groups of workers into separate redundant teams, limiting personnel in key areas such as power plants, swabbing down work stations before and after every shift, issuing personal protective equipment to field crews and having as many employees as possible work remotely.

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“The energy grid is a key part of the nation’s critical infrastructure, so we have a responsibility to take a well-planned, heightened approach to the threats that COVID-19 poses,” Xcel Energy, Colorado’s biggest electricity provider, said in a statement.

In many cases the plans aren’t new. Xcel Energy, Tri-State Generation & Transmission, which supplies rural cooperatives in Colorado, and the Platte River Power Authority, which serves Fort Collins, Longmont, Estes Park and Loveland, all had standing strategies for dealing with epidemics and pandemics.

“We have existing emergency and business continuity plans, including addressing a potential pandemic, that have been updated and activated in recent months to respond to this event,” Michelle Aguayo, an Xcel spokeswoman, said in an email.

Colorado Springs Utilities, which serves about 221,000 electric customers, also provides gas, water and waste water services so has had to develop a plan that includes all those activities, according to Danielle Nieves Oller, a spokeswoman for the utility.

Utilities have been developing such plans for a decade, according to Scott Aaronson, vice president for security and preparedness at the Edison Electric Institute, a trade group representing investor-owned utilities.

Planning began after the outbreak of the severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS) in 2003, Aaronson said. The H1N1 influenza pandemic (the so-called swine flu) in 2009 underscored the need for these strategies.

“In the case of pandemics and communicable disease, our plans are being implemented in a way that identifies potential transmission risks and ensures that health directives, such as implementing social distancing and maintaining clean spaces, are followed,” Lee Boughey, a spokesman for Tri-State, said in an email.

An engineer inspects a gate where water enters a hydroelectric power plant located on a canal near Montrose. Electricity generation systems are complex and Colorado utilities worried about the coronavirus pandemic have made plans to keep them running in the event personnel are sickened by the disease. (William Woody, Special to The Colorado Sun)

Across the country utilities are rolling out plans that could even call for critical employees to be sheltered-in-place at critical facilities, where cots, food, water, and other supplies are available, Aaronson said in an email.

Companies could also sequester additional teams of critical employees who are healthy to ensure alternates are ready to go in case another group gets compromised, he said.

The stakes for keeping the electrons flowing have perhaps never been higher.

“Millions of people are now confined to their homes, resorting to teleworking to do their jobs, e-commerce sites to do their shopping, and streaming video platforms to find entertainment,” Fatih Birol, executive director of the International Energy Agency, said in a commentary. “A reliable electricity supply underpins all of these services, as well as powering the devices most of us take for granted such as fridges, washing machines and light bulbs.”

All of Colorado’s 5.8 million residents are under orders to stay home until at least April 11.

MORE: Colorado governor issues statewide stay-at-home order just days after opting against the mandate

The flow of electrons is also essential for hospitals and health services as they face a burgeoning number of cases of COVID-19, the disease caused by the novel coronavirus. While there may be a shortage of respirators, without electricity respirators do not work. Most hospitals do, however, have back-up generation systems.

At PRPA a review of plans and procedures started on March 3, according to Alyssa Clemsen-Roberts, the authority’s chief strategy officer.

“We have duplicates and back-ups and split the company into A and B teams,” she said. Each team has members to handle the full range of functions from management to customer service. Teams work on a two-week rotation.

PRPA’s Rawhide Energy Station, a coal-fired plant in Wellington, has two separate control rooms each with its own crew. The two crews do not mix. “This provides double redundancy in our control rooms,” Clemsen-Roberts said. “We are pretty confident we are going to come through this OK.”

Xcel is performing “enhanced cleaning” at its facilities and limiting visitors. Workers at the plants are performing CDC-recommended hygiene. At PRPA, work stations are swabbed with alcohol wipes before and after each shift.

Tri-State has also limited nonessential travel and visitors to its facilities, and has issued health directives for employees who must work in the office or other facilities to limit exposure with contingencies in place to address potential illness.

A PRPA employee who isn’t feeling well has to report to his or her supervisor and the Human Resources department before coming to work.

All the utilities have a significant portion of their employees working from home – at PRPA it is 60% of its 250 workers. More than 65% of Colorado Springs Utilities’ 2,000 employees will be working at home until at least April 20.

Colorado Springs Utilities faces a particular challenge because it provides electricity, natural gas, water and waste water services, which means it has to have crews out on the streets and in people’s homes, Nieves Oller said.

El Paso County, where Colorado Springs is located, has reported seven deaths attributed to the coronavirus, more than any other county in Colorado. There are at least 137 confirmed cases of the illness there.

Crews working for the utility are using protective gear when entering buildings to do essential work such as responding to a gas leak, a carbon monoxide alarm or another safety situation, Nieves Oller said. Before entering a dwelling, workers ask if there is anyone in the house who has been exposed to the coronavirus or who has the disease.

If someone has been exposed, the workers will use masks and gloves. If there is someone in the home with an active case of the virus, a worker entering the house will don a protective suit, mask and gloves.

“We have very limited amounts of this type of protective gear,” Nieves Oller said. “We are doing the best we can with our resources to keep our employees and customers safe.”

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