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How the UK national grid is keeping lights on during the coronavirus pandemic

The kingpin of Britain’s energy market is working to avoid issues brought on by the coronavirus pandemic, including the loss of ‘critical employees’.  

Specialised staff in self-isolation, the inability to permit engineers to work from home, and an extra demand on domestic power due to home-based lockdowns have all been flagged as potential problems for the National Grid.

For specialised engineers who need to be on-site in order to do their jobs, working from home in lockdown is not an option.

But concerns in the industry are mostly around the loss of ‘critical people’, both on-site and in corporate roles, who would be hard to replace effectively if they were infected. 

The industry is one of many adapting to government measures to control the spread of COVID-19, which has killed 437 people in the UK as of Wednesday afternoon.  

‘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,’ wrote Fatih Birol, executive director of the International Energy Agency.

‘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.

‘Organisations need to ensure staff members remain safe as they carry out their critical work.’

Birol warned in a LinkedIn post at the weekend that coronavirus has ‘reminded us of the essential role of skilled personnel’. 

‘Network maintenance and repair is labour intensive and has to be done on site by workers and engineers,’ he said.  

‘A key lesson of the current crisis is to make sure that electricity systems have sufficient resources not just of physical assets but also human capital.’

The National Grid, which owns Britain’s electric power transmission network, says it has plans in place to keep electricity running throughout the pandemic, however long it lasts. 

‘We have well-developed procedures in place to manage the effects of a pandemic,’ the National Grid said in an official statement. 

‘We have asked all our employees who do not need to be onsite to work from home where possible, in line with government guidance.

‘This measure has been introduced to limit the spread of the virus, protect the health and safety of all our people, and ensure those in operational roles can continue to do their jobs.’ 

The National Grid passes energy to local distribution network operators who then reduce the voltage and distribute electricity to homes around the country.

Its engineers at power plants are trained in multiple roles, meaning they can potentially switch between jobs to cover for employees, while its operational sites are secure ‘with a wide range of resilience and security measures’, it claims. 

New measures introduced enforce a segregation of ‘critical employees’ and a complete restriction on any visitors.

While it wouldn’t be drawn into explaining how a critical employee is defined, or how segregation would be enforced, reports from the US say such engineers are being asked to live and work on-site for the near future to prevent the risk of infection. 

The National Grid told MailOnline that, while this is not something it’s doing at the moment, it ‘wouldn’t rule it out’ in the future. 

Engineers are coming and going to work at the National Grid’s two ‘top secret’ national control rooms at undisclosed locations – one of which is a back-up, although it’s currently using both, a spokesperson told MailOnline. 

Anyone in the control room is defined as a critical employee. COVID-19-fighting measures in place to protect them include an increased use of sanitisers, as well as taking advantage of the control rooms’ fairly wide open spaces.  

Its control centres have fully operational back-up locations, while visitor access to its electricity and gas control rooms have been ceased to prevent new infections.  

‘We have comprehensive and well-developed procedures in place to manage the effects of a pandemic and do not anticipate any issues in continuing to reliably supply gas and electricity,’ it said. 

The National Grid has also analysed anticipated effects on electricity supply and demand of mass self-isolation.

Demand across the country is actually expected to decrease, it says, mostly due to a reduction in energy use from industrial consumers.

This fortunately leaves extra capacity to cater for the increase in domestic demand as people have to stay at home.

Abrupt slowdown in industrial and business activity across much of Europe has reduced electricity demand, Birol of the International Energy Agency agrees.

But natural gas power plants lose money if they are used only from time to time, adding to the pressure they have to face. 

Ofgem, the government-backed industry regular for electricity and gas, told MailOnline that knows the pandemic will present challenges and it is working with government and industry to discuss their ‘readiness’ for them.

‘We expect industry to alert us to any issues that arise, and keep us informed of their plans to deal with these issues,’ it said in a statement.

‘Critical operations such as National Grid have put measures in place to deal with the situation whilst following the latest government guidance, designed to ensure they can continue to operate without disruption.’

Utility companies in the energy industry who buy energy that originated at the National Grid and sell it on to customers – including British Gas, EDN and Npower – all have workers who are critical to maintaining energy supplies and serving consumers, from conducting gas readings to answering helplines. 

‘It is imperative that these workers continue to do this important work, whilst also minimising the risk of catching or passing on the virus,’ Ofgem said.

British Gas said in an email to customers that it would be cancelling non-essential engineer appointments, as well as prioritising emergencies and the most vulnerable. 

 

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