The Australian Energy Market Operator has shifted to the highest level of its pandemic plan, meaning that the bulk of the organisation’s 900 staff is now working from home, with the exception of operators in the key control rooms and supporting teams.
“AEMO has now fully activated its pandemic response and business continuity plans, to keep the workforce safe and play our role in containing the global spread of COVID-19, while establishing additional layers of protection for our critical operations across Australia’s energy systems,” said AEMO chief Audrey Zibelman in s statement on Thursday.
The AEMO has four different control rooms – one for the gas market (in Melbourne), one for the WA market (in Perth), and two for the National Electricity Market (in Sydney and Brisbane).
A spokesman for AEMO told RenewEconomy (from his home office) that the market operator was now looking to “separate” its control room teams as an added measure to protect against the spread of Covid-19, the novel Coronavirus.
AEMO, he says, has quickly ramped up its pandemic response through its four levels – white, green, yellow and now red – reflecting a progression from observation, to education and hygiene, to encouraging some staff to work remotely and finally to containment, with up to 90 per cent of staff expecetd to be working from home by the end of this week.
“A number of buildings where our teams are located have had confirmed cases, so we’ve taken the final step of separating the work force,” he said, noting that AEMO had not had any confirmed cases among its team to date.
The management of the grid is likely to be made easier because the peak summer period has passed when heatwaves and bush fires put generators under pressure at the same time as demand soared and people sought protection from the heat with air conditioners.
The biggest challenge AEMO may now face is the opposite – managing low demand at a time of the year when rooftop solar output is relatively high.
Any decision by the federal or state governments to enforce strict isolation measures – as has occurred in Europe, parts of Asia and in some US states – could see industry close and demand fall.
“AEMO is in continual and open dialogue with generators, gas facilities, network businesses and other market participants on their preparedness capability to ensure secure and reliable energy supply is maintained during this challenging period,” Zibelman said.
“In addition to Australian industry discussions, AEMO is in conversation with grid operators across Europe, the Americas and Asia to bring international experiences in the management of the pandemic to benefit the broader Australian power system, as we continue to address the evolving issues in Australia,” she said.
Italy, as one example, saw an 8.1 per cent drop week-on-week in energy demand after the country ordered its citizens to stay at home and forced the closure of all nonessential businesses, Greentech Media reports. Spain also experienced a sharp drop and Red Eléctrica de España (REE), Spain’s transmission system operator, set up a third control center to add redundancy to the system.
China also experienced a big fall in power demand during its massive lockdown, leading to a substantial fall in emissions. Any fall in demand in Australia is likely to see low electricity prices, but that could also impact the earnings of generators, both fossil fuel and renewable.
Greentech Media also reported that the Edison Electric Institute (EEI) utility trade group in the US warned last month that up to 40 percent of utility employees could be out sick, quarantined or at home to care for sick family members as the pandemic spreads.
On Friday, the Australian Energy Council and Energy Networks Australia issued a joint statement to assure households and businesses that the energy sector was implementing contingency plans in response to the COVID-19 outbreak to maintain secure electricity supplies.
“Safety is always our top priority. Energy companies have undertaken a range of measures in response to this pandemic to ensure its workforce, assets and energy supply are protected,” Australian Energy Council chief executive Sarah McNamara said.
“There continues to be industry-wide consultation on pandemic preparations and necessary responses with AEMO in regular discussions with generators, network and transmission companies and gas companies,” McNamara added.
The two industry bodies said that a range of measures were already being implemented, including increasing the stockpiles of fuels, reviewing the timeline for scheduled infrastructure maintenance and managing the rosters and access of critical personnel, including those working in control centres.
“Every part of the energy supply chain will face challenges, which is why we are ensuring we keep communicating between businesses, with government and importantly with customers,” Dillon added.
“If you are under isolation, have been exposed or tested positive for COVID-19 and require a network crew to attend your property, please contact your network provider so appropriate steps can be taken. We all have a role to play in limiting infection and protecting the general public and essential personnel.”