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Keeping the Lights On: For Energy Providers and Frontline Workers, Lessons Learned

Utilities worldwide have faced an enormous stress test in recent weeks as they ensure the continued operations of electricity systems, providing the critical power that has ventilators running in hospitals, machines whirring at essential businesses, and family, friends, and colleagues connected during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Ensuring the resilient operations of power infrastructure while protecting the health of both workers and customers has created fresh challenges for energy providers like Enel Group, a multinational company working across five continents and 32 countries with 68,000 employees. A member of The Rockefeller Foundation and MIT led Global Commission to End Energy Poverty, its portfolio of power stations is highly diversified, with almost half of the energy it generates coming from renewable sources including wind, solar, hydroelectric, thermoelectric and biomass power plants. Enel also manages power grids in eight countries, from Europe to South America, with more than 73 million customers.

As the pandemic’s leading edge hit Europe, Enel, which works extensively in Italy and Spain, quickly took a number of strong and coordinated steps to maintain and deepen its energy resilience. The Enel team shared its learnings and insights during a technical webinar designed and hosted by The Rockefeller Foundation and Enel Foundation, in partnership with Sustainable Energy for All.

 

As a leading distribution system operator in Italy and Spain, two countries that began to see high infection rates in late February, Enel Group had to move quickly to establish a strategy, said Livio Gallo, Head of Global Infrastructure and Networks Business Line, which manages Enel’s global electricity distribution operations.

Recognizing that a healthy workforce was crucial to keeping the grid running, Enel implemented a special task force, which supported moving as much of the back-office operations as possible online  – telecommuting increased from 4 to 55 percent. This has been possible thanks to the digitalization of energy infrastructure: smart metering, grid automation, remote control, and “self-healing” networks made it possible to manage assets with a much smaller workforce in the field. But even utility providers who may not have extensive digital capacity can implement preventative measures.

Gallo’s colleagues Viviana Vitto and Guilherme Gomes Lencastre described steps taken by Enel to reduce risks for critical workers who couldn’t work from home. Lencastre, speaking from Brazil where he oversees electricity distribution to more than 17 million customers across four states, mentioned measures such as moving to staggered shifts, changing routes of access to minimize contact between employees, completing some hand-overs outdoors and activating connections to contractors in case of need. His team also prepared for a situation where half of the workforce could be out ill at once without a disruption to service. To avoid having to implement such a plan, personal protective equipment was distributed and new sanitation policies were put into effect.

During a Q&A session, managed by Enel Foundation Deputy Director João Duarte, the presenters highlighted how the company dealt with a decrease in overall electricity demand as industries shuttered, as has been typical for countries responding to the virus. The company also discussed the importance of powering healthcare facilities and other critical infrastructure. In Italy, Enel Group has offered new no-cost connections for temporary hospitals, and in Spain it provided free energy for 13 hospitals where Covid-19 patients are treated.

Gallo also noted that for efficiency and clarity, Enel made these changes at the same time in all the countries where it works, whether or not an individual country was at that moment implementing restrictive measures. At this point, Enel is beginning to think about turning the page on the emergency. “Now the challenge is a fast and effective recovery,” Gallo said, “we will not be found unprepared.”

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