Publish date: March 24, 2021 | Total runtime: 30:13
Joseph Petruzzi, shift supervisor, Eastern Generation
Rich Dewey, president and CEO, New York Independent System Operator (NYISO)
Host: Todd Snitchler, president and CEO, Electric Power Supply Association (EPSA)
Joseph Petruzzi, shift supervisor, Eastern Generation: We are considered first responders, and during natural emergencies and so forth, we’re required to be here. We don’t get days off because of inclement weather. We need to be here through thick and thin. So, it was just a natural progression for a global pandemic. We didn’t see it coming but we always knew that, when required, we have to answer the call to come in, and that’s what we did.
Todd Snitchler: That was Joseph Petruzzi, a shift supervisor who works at the Astoria power plant in Queens, New York. Astoria is owned by a competitive power generation company, Eastern Generation, and brings 959 MW of electricity to the Big Apple.
You’ll hear more from him, and what it was like to be sequestered at a power plant for weeks in the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic – away from home, family and friends. For some energy workers, that’s what it took to keep our country running while everything else was shut down.
This is Energy Solutions, a new podcast from the Electric Power Supply Association. Listen in as we unpack the stories and trends behind America’s changing electric grid. I’m your host, Todd Snitchler, EPSA’s president and CEO.
We always say reliable electricity is essential and at the heart of our economy – but it was just about one year ago that we gained new appreciation for that fact.
The COVID-19 pandemic sent the globe – and the United States – into lockdown as we grappled with how to control the virus’ spread.
Today, we’re looking back at how we kept the lights on, how we watched in real time as a transformed world transitioned the way we consume electricity, and what it all means going forward.
EPSA represents competitive power suppliers – companies that build, operate and invest in power generation resources. As the pandemic spread and public safety measures were implemented, EPSA members responded quickly to keep plants and operations running – working closely with all sectors of the industry and public officials. Essential staff were identified, and safety measures were taken to ensure that they remained healthy. As a result of the industry’s preparation, response and collaboration, Americans stayed connected to electricity – even as they hunkered down.
Throughout the year, our member companies have gone beyond just providing power – donating millions in community aid and assisting with volunteer efforts to help those struggling with unemployment, financial hardship and virtual schooling. In total, EPSA members dedicated more than $6 million to local aid efforts. They supported local food banks and emergency responders. They even donated laptops to help students adjust to virtual schooling.
But our companies are just one part of the many working to bring power to Americans 24 hours a day, 7 days a week.
Rich Dewey is the president and CEO of the New York Independent System Operator – or NYISO.
Rich had been part of pandemic planning exercises – but even he was surprised when he had to actually put the plan into action.
Rich Dewey, president and CEO, New York Independent System Operator: I actually had to go back and look. It was in 2009 that the world first started taking pandemic-planning seriously when the H1N1 Bird Flu presented a real risk to human life and safety. That was actually a project I worked on in 2009 – to develop a pandemic plan. It was a little bit weird at the time because you think about pandemics and plagues and it’s medieval kind of stuff. And you don’t really anticipate that this is a real risk or something we really have to care about.
But we did put together a pandemic plan. We scrutinized it amongst ourselves. We put it on the shelf. And as part of our normal business continuity efforts that we go through every year, we would pull that plan down off the shelf and say, “Gee, we probably are never going to need this, but let’s take a look at it and see if it continues to make sense.”
And then I remember when we started seeing the news coming out of China in December and early January, you know, I walked into the office of our business continuity specialist and I said, “This might be crazy and I might be overreacting, but we need to really take a look at this plan because this could be something we need.” And within a month’s time – it just, it came on fast. When it was apparent, we had a real public safety, public health disaster – potential disaster – coming at us, we were ready. There were adjustments we had to make of course. Because each one of these viruses is a little different. We had to assess what we did know, what we didn’t know. How do you really catch this virus?
But by and large we followed the script that we had in place. So, it was fortunate, it was good planning. At least we had a game plan in place, that when we needed to move quickly, we could.
Todd: Sure, and serendipity arrives again that you happened to be involved with the planning way back more than a decade ago. So that’s fantastic. Can you talk a little bit about how you actually executed on some of those things and some of the sacrifices that were made in order to keep the lights on?
Rich: Yeah. The first thing we did was move all the non-essential people out of the building. The most critical function is those control room operators that sit there 24/7, 365, and manage the flows of power across the state. When you think about the job that they do and how important that is to New York, the economy in New York, the health and safety of the citizens of New York – we only have about 50 people that know how to do that. And when we started thinking about what we were learning about how quickly people can spread this virus amongst each other and how dangerous it is, we quickly realized we could go through 50 people really quickly and then have a real problem. So the first thing we did was we took all the nonessential people that didn’t need to be in the building, and we just sent them home. We made that decision on a Friday, and it was going to take effect the next Monday. That was probably the most impactful to our business because we were not set up and we don’t have a corporate culture or even the infrastructure to run the company that way. But we said we’re just going to have to learn this and we’re going to have to figure it out. So then we had about a week where the operators were still coming into the control room every day. But they were going home at night and they were going about their business, protecting their families. We realized, we saw the numbers going up in New York City – you saw the news reports, everybody did. And we realized we don’t know how quickly, how much time we have before have to protect these individuals so that we can do the job that we need to do.
So, we had about a week. We rushed out, we procured a whole bunch of trailers. We established secure zones around the control room itself to make sure that people didn’t interact with the operators that were doing those critical functions.
We got some cooking staff because we didn’t know if you could get this virus through food that you would get from a restaurant. So we said since we don’t know we’ve got to be really careful here. So we got food service individuals. They agreed to fulfill this role for us.
We sat down with the operations team and we said, “Guys if it ever comes to this, we need volunteers. Who’s willing to do it?” I was just so impressed with our team. Every hand went up. Literally every hand went up. So we had more volunteers than we needed. And think about the fear and everything going on in society – they were willing to separate themselves from their families, leave their families at home, they had kids, they had spouses, and move onsite and live in these trailers just to make sure they could insulate themselves and protect themselves from catching the virus and giving it to each other.
We did a couple of things. We brought medical personnel on board, so we were constantly, every single day, talking to each individual, assessing not only their physical health, but their mental health. We brought some mental health professionals on board just to give them an opportunity to talk to them. And as importantly, we made those services available to their families. So you recognize you have an operator that’s moving on site – their spouse and their children are dealing with these issues at home and battling some of the same concerns that you might have. So we made these services to the families as well. And the operators had to know – the comfort that we were taking care of their families and thinking of them and giving them that outlet. So that was an important piece of that as well.
Todd: What did you learn now that we’re a year into this, as you look at your, I’ll call it your “old pandemic plan” and then how you’re looking at maybe what changes and updates might need to be made as you look at where we go from here forward?
Rich: Sure, so some of the things we learned was the importance of physical spacing within the rotations themselves. Right, so if we had an operator– it’s a crew, so the crews are seven people. And those men and women l work together. They sit in the same room. It’s a very, very large room. But a lot of the communication they need to have between their various positions is important to have. To the extent that we can separate them physically in a bigger space and put some shielding up between them, that kind of thing. Recognizing that even though they’re all following the same sort of protocols, it’s vitally important that they maintain their space even within the job, so at least as far as this virus and the way it transmits, that’s an important piece. Some of the things as I look forward down the road, if we ever encounter a mutation or a strain of this virus or another virus, I think we probably need to think about, “Is there a way that we can we do these same jobs and maybe not be in the same room?” right? So that’s a learning, that as we go forward, and once we get on the other side of this, that’s something we’ve got to think about just to put a fine point on the overall pandemic plan.
Todd: Sure. I’m going to ask what I think could be the hardest question, but, what’s the one thing that you’re most proud of about your team and about how things worked over the last year as we worked through this whole thing together?
Rich: I’m most proud of the sacrifice that the operators made. I mean, every one of these individuals had family at home, have a home life. There was almost no gap between when we solicited volunteers and they all raised their hand. I think it’s everybody recognizing the job that we do—how important it is to everybody, how important it is to New York. I was just so impressed with the level of sacrifice that each one of those did.
Also, we continue to follow these practices. So we’ve made the decision it wasn’t necessary to sequester anymore, but the risks are still very real. So in the several months that we’ve had since we’ve ended the sequestration, you know, these operators, these men and women, they go home every single night but they still have to stay out of crowded spaces. They still have to maintain good protocols. So they’re paying attention to everything they need to do not only when they’re on the job, but when they’re home as well.
Todd: COVID also impacted how Americans used electricity – changing the way NYISO plans for when and where power is needed.
Rich: Certainly the reduction in demand was remarkable, right. The whole economy just shut down. New York City was impacted to a much greater extent than other parts of the state. But we were looking at 10-12% demand reductions, and even higher at certain times in New York City. So not only were you using less power, but you also saw the shift as every company started working from home. You started to see the residential load pockets use power more, even though a lot of the commercial and industrial load pockets went down. So it was a shifting in terms of what you saw. It’s still uncertain – assuming this vaccine rollout works well and assuming we can return to normal – what’s normal going to look like?
That’s the thing where our load forecasters are spending a lot of time looking at the different scenarios. And we saw a time shifting as well. The ramp in the morning happened a little bit earlier than previously, because you don’t have the commute time before everybody gets to the office. You get up, you get out of bed, you fire up the computer and you see that ramp up. And the curve has been a little bit flatter. It’s definitely something we’ve got to keep an eye on. I think some of these changes will be somewhat permanent – there are companies who have gone to the full remote model. It’s hit my family, my son works in software support and his company closed their building, let the lease lapse, and they’re never going back to the office. And people are experimenting with those kinds of models.
Todd: Well, you’ve mentioned the changes that are happening both in our industry and outside for the customers that utilize the power that we generate and you make sure arrives. Can you predict how market participants and generators may need to adapt? Have you started to think about how that may change as we look over the horizon a little bit?
Rich: Yeah, well, I’m not sure – I think the changes we’re seeing with respect to electrification are going to have a much bigger impact than what we’ll see as a result of COVID. As a result of COVID there’s going to be the economic question of how quickly does the economy bounce back? You saw this in 2009 when there was a big trough, and then eventually it got back. And what’s the slope of that curve? Coupled with that now, with a lot of these climate goals for decarbonization of the economy – what happens to electrification of transportation and building stock? I think that will have a much more remarkable impact on terms of demand than COVID will.
Todd: Great, that’s helpful. I’m glad you mentioned some of the environmental issues because New York state is one of the most aggressive states in the country with ambitious climate law and is trying to drive innovation and deployment of those types of resources. Can you explain or can you talk to us about how you think that might impact the operations of the grid of the future, as you just noted, there’s going to be changes coming, how do you envision some of that changing operations or the way the grid actually functions? Or do you think – we’ll just navigate through it and it won’t change it?
Rich: I think it will change it a great deal. When you start looking at some of the targets that are laid out under the CLCPA, the wind and solar and storage resources – well, wind and solar are less predictable. They’re subject to the weather. So you’ve got to start planning for what are the backstop sources that you’ll need to have in place for when the wind’s not blowing and the sun’s not shining? Because those days do happen. Storage gives an amazing opportunity to be able to fill in some of those gaps. And you can take advantage of overproduction during times of high wind and high solar and then have that available for the gaps when those resources aren’t available. But the scheduling of that becomes incredibly complex. You’ve got to make sure that you understand and manage and measure the state of charge of every one of these storage resources. You’ve got to think about the economic impact of when’s the right time to charge them, not only when you have excess electricity, but we want to schedule it so the customers are protected to the greatest extent, and you’re managing those costs. So it’s just a whole dimension of grid operation that’s more complicated than we have today. So we’re going to need to have tools to make sure that we can do that. We’re going to need to have market rules so that suppliers, and quite honestly, consumers, understand and make smart decisions so we can do this as economically as possible.
Todd: How can we be supportive and help you as you try to work through some of those issues and we find ourselves in the position to provide the solutions that you need in order to keep the grid reliable?
Rich: It’s constant engagement and involvement in the stakeholder process. We’ve got a stakeholder process that – it’s not my rules, it’s our rules. How these markets operate. Everybody has a say and is involved in making sure that there’s number one, the right resources are in place to maintain reliability because you’re right, there’s zero appetite for loss of service. But at the same time, these are business operations and people deserve to make a fair rate of return. We’ve got to make sure that we are appropriately pricing the services so number one, consumers get value for what they’re paying for, and number two, the suppliers and providers and people making these investments can be assured their investments will be valued and protected and they have an opportunity to earn a return on that. Some of the things – and I brought this out too when I was talking in my State of the Grid speech – we have had a lot of conflict in New York between the policy of New York State government toward climate and the electric system and decarbonization. Quite in conflict with the federal government for what we’ve seen the last few years. The political changes that we’re seeing now – there is much more alignment between what we anticipate for energy policy at the federal level with what New York state is trying to do. So that creates an opportunity for us quite honestly as an industry and as a community to address some of these market rules that have caused so much conflict in a meaningful and productive way. So that we can provide, number one, the assurance that market will provide signal investors want to see. Number two, that we’re getting the kind of performance and attributes out of the market that are valuable for consumers. And then everybody is in violent agreement and alignment that reliability is the number one objective.
Todd: Great, thanks for that. We’re nearing the end of our question and answer, and I always like to do a rapid-fire set of questions that may be a little less serious but energy focused. So with that, I’ll kick off my first question: What energy topics get mentioned in the State of the Union Address?
Rich: Offshore wind I think is going to be a big push. There’s a lot of opportunity there. It’s been kind of stalemated at the federal level. I think that topic – and the success that other countries have been able to show with the successful deployment of offshore wind, is probably the biggest boost opportunity for the energy climate agenda.
Todd: Okay. Do electric vehicles go mainstream in the next for years?
Rich: No. That’s Rich Dewey’s suggestion. Until the cost of a gallon of gas is higher than the cost to charge that battery by more than just a little, I don’t think people buy too many electric vehicles.
Todd: Okay, so that answers my next one, I’ll skip that. Can federal and state tension between market and state polices be resolved and will it be?
Rich: Yes, they can. And I predict that it will be resolved. And I’m actually pretty optimistic. I’ve been in conversation with all of the commissioners down at the FERC. I think there is definitely an interest to show that these policies and markets can coexist. I think you’ll see that play out and I predict that we’ll have a solution in New York this year.
Todd: Great. Well, thank you Rich. We appreciate you being our first guest and for participating. We look forward to working with you in the future as we have in the past. Certainly appreciate your time and all the great things that were done throughout the COVID pandemic, and hopefully we move on to the next thing that we have to be concerned about and we get this behind us sooner rather than later.
Rich: Thanks for having me it was a lot of fun.
Todd Snitchler: Grid operators and control room staff played a key role in keeping power flowing. But what about the workers that operate the power plants themselves? Let’s go back to Joe Petruzzi at Eastern Generation’s Astoria plant.
Joseph: During the pandemic, a lot changed. Right off the bat, there was a lot of logistics that needed to happen. We had meetings and discussions on how we were going to isolate—specifically—the operations department, the control room operators. We have a limited supply of control room operators, and everyone’s concern here was ensuring that they were safe and able to come to work to do the job, because without them we can’t generate electricity.
Todd: Right. How did you in your role ensure that the other essential personnel could be safe and get the work done that they needed to get done?
Joseph: We were, I want to say, a little relaxed in our dealings with the sequestered fellows. So my work crew, for example, we weren’t concerned about passing or catching COVID-19 because we were all cleared. We were safe.
Joseph: So when we were amongst ourselves, we were okay, we kept our distance, but it wasn’t so strict. As far as other station personnel, we were all given orders and informed our men to stay away from everyone to avoid contact. Everyone wore masks at all times.
Any station personnel who saw us, they were to avoid us. They were to actually make room for us and let us go our way, so they would move out of the way, take a different route. As I said, we had secure areas that no one was allowed entry other than the sequestered personnel and that was strictly adhered to.
Todd: So what was it like for you and for the other folks in the generating station to have to be sequestered for those long periods of time in and out, not able to interact with family, you know not go home at night, but be, you know, required to stay put on site.
Joe: It was interesting. In the beginning it was like anything else. It was like anything else, it was new, it was unknown, exciting. You didn’t have time to focus on what you were missing out on.
Being that we work 12-hour shifts and it’s a rotating shift, there were times, where I might not see my family for three or four days, just because I’m on a shift. I’m working on a midnight shift. So with that, the first three, four or five days being locked in here, you didn’t really notice that you were missing family or friends, because it was sort of normal not to see them for this amount of time.
Joseph: But once you got about a week away, a week into it, everything fell into the standard routine of you know waking up, work for 12 hours, kill a little bit of time before dinner, maybe spend another hour or so up and then was right to sleep. So in a 12-hour day work that is not a lot of free time, as much as people may think.
But after the first week it started feeling you’re missing out on family, seeing that friendly face joking around with your kids, holding your wife just sitting there at the couch watching TV, something along those lines, taking a walk.
As it progressed – everyone spoke to their family every day, probably numerous times a day. But it’s not the same not physically being there with them. By the end of our third week, I will tell you we couldn’t wait to get out of here. There was such an excitement build up to – finally, that we served our time. And you know we did our part to help out, and now we finally get to go be with our loved ones again.
And if you would ask everyone here, we’d all be happy to do it again, if you can believe that.
We’ve learned the human factor is our most important asset. That was a concern and one of the strong reasons why we decided to pursue sequestration here. The control room board operators, we couldn’t allow them to become sick and not be able to come to work, because without them we couldn’t generate, we would not be able to function.
Joseph: And we supply a very important commodity to the city, to society. Most people take us for granted. We’re sort of like the unsung heroes. Everyone understands that the medical departments, fireman, first responders, police officers, they’re all important people.
A lot of people don’t realize that without electricity, society would have a very tough time surviving, so with that being said, we did learn that our assets, our best assets, are our actual employees. And everyone stepped up, made changes to that daily routine as required, and we got through this with flying colors, I want to say.
Todd: That’s great. And you note the essential nature of electricity, and we couldn’t agree with you more. In my former role I used to be the state chairman of the Ohio Public Utilities Commission. I liked to say that the public always wanted three things: their lights on, their beer cold, and their water warm. And they always just expect that that’s the case. I’m curious if you think that working through the pandemic has made the public more aware of how important your job is. Has it given you an opportunity to talk to neighbors or friends about just how important that light switch or that refrigerator is, and how important the work that you do to ensure that happens is?
Joseph: Well, it’s funny you say that because every time I meet someone new, I bring up that same phrase that – “When you turn on a light switch, I want you to think of me because I’m behind that,” you know.
I hope that everyone outside of the power industry has garnered some respect for what we do here and realized that it is a vital asset to surviving and living as comfortably as we do.
With that being said, did they actually realize it? I can’t say. People in this building, anyone who’s been in the industry, whether it’s the pole climbers, whether it’s the utility workers out on the streets, or us power plant operators, we all know and respect—we know what it takes to make power. It’s a very tricky dance. It’s under extreme conditions. We proudly do it. We wear it as a badge of honor. I would hope the public did become aware of it. As far as impacting, COVID impacting them and making them aware of it – I’m not sure, because we kept the lights on. I know here we did. I don’t know rest of the country, but here we didn’t have a problem. It was a guarantee that light switch was turning on in the morning and shutting off at night, without a problem.
Joseph: I would say the station as a whole, coming together, is probably one of the finest points of my career here. That in adverse conditions, the unknown, everyone was willing to give all they had to make Astoria, you know, what it is today.
Todd Snitchler: The COVID-19 pandemic has been one of the greatest challenges our country – and the world – has ever faced. Yet thanks to planning, cooperation, and a lot of sacrifice from dedicated energy workers, Americans were able to enjoy uninterrupted power even during COVID’s most uncertain, frightening and lonely moments. While we don’t know when and what the next test of our electric grid will be, we do know that doing all we can to support a reliable grid. And that’s our number one priority.
Thanks for listening to Energy Solutions. You can find more information about EPSA, competitive power generators, and NYISO on our website at www.epsa.org and at www.nyiso.com. If you liked this episode, please share it on social media, or with your coworkers, friends and family. You can also connect with us on Twitter @EPSAnews and LinkedIn. And leave a rating or comment whenever you listen to our podcasts.
Energy Solutions is brought to you by the Electric Power Supply Association. EPSA represents America’s competitive power suppliers, bringing about 150,000 MW of power generation resources to customers throughout the United States. Discover the power of competition at www.epsa.org.
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