I thought I’d give some insight on the COVID-19 impact from my perspective in the hydroelectric power industry. As a journeyman hydro electrician, I’ll provide a “boots on the ground” tradesman’s point of view. I’ll do my best to give a short- and medium-term interpretation of this event’s impacts insofar as keeping the lights on. While not as prevalent throughout the entire country, hydroelectric projects (dams) are the major supplier of electricity for the bulk of those already in the Redoubt and BC. While all the windmills along the Columbia produce more political “warm and fuzzies” than actual power, dams are the reliable workhorses that make up the Northwest’s power backbone. Reasonable steps are being taken to keep it that way. I cannot and will not speak to the rest of the country, but I would assume CoOP (Continuity of Operations) strategies are being implemented elsewhere and my situation is not unique. Coal, wind, solar, and nuclear have other logistical issues that hopefully someone else can elaborate on.
I work for a major public utility in the Northwest. There has been no small amount of neither literal nor virtual ink spilled over the recent virus outbreak. It’s a big deal. My utility and pretty much every other public and private entity is taking it very seriously. Almost a fashion statement, I literally just got an e-mail from a car dealership in Spokane saying they’re going on the defense as well. But think about it: These bosses, whatever we may think of them, have a vested interest in keeping things going as smoothly as possible. Whether they answer to the shareholders, board, or voters, they’ll all have their day within the next few months. Dams and the power they produce are a necessity for the grid and most companies recognize them for the cash cows they are. I’m not saying “Don’t worry, the government has it under control,” but I really don’t think this virus will render my sector with its overarching implications inoperable.
Digest: E’ry little thing’s gonna be alright.
Don’t worry. I know I’m writing to the SurvivalBlog audience. Doom and gloom may abound, but a power outage isn’t the point to get freaked out about. Spend your energy trying to get that last corner of your pantry stocked. I’ve been asked this so many times it prompted a quick letter to the editor that morphed into this article. You’ll probably still have electricity. It’s a virus we’re fighting, not electrons and for you and yours, the concerns will most likely be something other than lumens. That said, things could change over time. Prepare as so many other articles have instructed. Whether for an hour, day, or year, I do believe an extended power outage will occur sooner or later but that’s not the pressing issue. Let me reiterate, I’m writing from an admittedly myopic position at the ground level and can only confidently speak specifically of the northwestern US and possibly BC, but I feel reasonable in projecting this across the rest of the nation. My contacts at other utilities feel the same. After getting many late-night panicked texts, I’m relatively confident the dams will still crank out electricity with even 3/4 of the crew out on sick bed. Let’s take a look at this.
The Hydropower Basics
Most hydroelectric dams were built within the past 100 years, or so. Given the rigorous structural testing involved for FERC re-licensing, which essentially focuses on making sure a dam won’t fail and flood the surrounding area, we’ll ignore other potential points of failure (Malicious software/hacking, Cascadia Rising, Supervolcano, EMP/sunspots, terrorism, etc) and focus strictly on what’s in front of at this point in time. I do not intend to diminish legitimate concerns; those others are all considerations worth preparing for. But I’m speaking to this moment, right now. We’re facing a viral epidemic. Let’s take a quick look at how power gets from the river to your living room light fixture and how such a virus would affect that light staying on.
Water goes through a pipe, spins a wheel that in turn spins a big ol’ magnet inside a coil of wires. That coil forces electrons through more coils and then more and more coils, increasing and decreasing the voltage (pressure) in inverse proportion to the current (flow) as necessary, through your breaker panel, to the light switch and to the light. As much as I’d love to geek out, there’s lots of material all over the web on this so I won’t delve further. The more basic concern moves beyond principle to the application. How would a viral pandemic prevent you from getting power to your house? All of this, the water, rotor (magnet), coils (stators, transformers), are operated, regulated, cooled, lubed, and maintained by people or systems that people or computers directly control. Let’s look at that.
Throwing a Monkeywrench
For a short-term scenario, let’s make it bad: A couple of operators, machinists, and electricians are out sick. These are the key personnel. Most the of the crew is home vacillating whether heads or tails to the porcelain. Without managers, secretaries, and laborers things might get tough, but the lights stay on. There’s still a skeleton crew of the essential core present at work during the day shift. But that’s basically what a powerhouse would have on the weekend anyway. If manned at all after normal work hours, most powerhouses only have a solo operator on night shift. The generators do the work. If everything is going well, the guy running the show is in the control room at their computer and, like most operators I know, he’s reading this article right now.
The generators will most likely be okay for a few days, probably a week or two, possibly months just spinning. Throughout the decades, powerhouses have run on fewer and fewer people. The reasons for this are generally the result of financial decisions and automation, both being intertwined. From the financial standpoint, some power producers have decided to cut the bottom line and employ as few people as possible. I’ll reserve judgment on ROI here, but that’s what most companies have done. As for automation, this can potentially obviate the need for a human to be physically present for operation of the generators. Most small powerhouses run by remote control until something goes wrong. As long as things keep ticking along, there’s no need for someone to be there. My powerhouse has a full day shift and retains a night shift operator, but the majority of powerhouses are unmanned except for maintenance or trouble calls.
A system operator literally hundreds of miles away can get power at their beck and call, all through SCADA (System Control and Data Acquisition) and other systems. The system operator can typically remotely ramp power up and down as necessary with the click of a mouse. Power production is hardly unique to this. Water and wastewater are complimentary services to electricity that utilize similar processes. The basic modern necessities rest in automation. While I could rant at length about robots taking my job, there are practical applications. A simple indicator light or gauge can tell me the status of varying pieces of equipment so I don’t have to go physically check. Motor-operated valves are a lot easier to operate from a touchscreen than physically cranking a 24” gate valve. Much of the things being monitored are in hazardous or high-voltage areas. I wouldn’t want to pay a human to hold a thermometer 24/7 inside what is essentially a giant radiator and call out the temperature every five seconds. Let the computers do that.
“Let to computers do that.” You’re reading this on a computer/phone/gadget. Has it failed you in the past couple of weeks? PLCs (Programmable Logic Controllers; i.e., computers) control the cooling water, gates, and most of the systems that regulate the eventual product, electricity. Once online, most generators can run essentially on autopilot with little human intervention and can do so for days and weeks. And most powerhouses have multiple generators. When one has an issue or needs to cool down, operators can ramp up or synchronize another in. Additionally, most powerhouses cannot run all generators simultaneously because there is a finite amount of water. During peak months when the snowpack is all melting is a different story but for most of the year, once the water is drawn down, there is no more “fuel” until it comes down the river. By balancing the projected power needs and weather forecasts, dams are operated in such a way as to plan for this.
Many generators have operated reliably for 50+ years with ancillary systems being updated along the way as technology evolves. One thing to bear in mind is that most power companies are late adopters of these latest technologies. The new equipment must be proven reliable in less critical functions and industries before engineers are comfortable tying them into a machine worth tens of millions of dollars. Because of this, the systems must have a generally solid track record prior to being utilized in this application. While the whole system does need the occasional repair and preventative maintenance, there’s a fudge factor there. Your truck doesn’t stop running because you didn’t change the oil at 3,000 mi when Grandpa said to. Yes, I’m the guy who fixes them when they do (and they do!) break down.
A Network of Subsystems
A generator is not a singular machine but a network of subsystems. Each of these has their own idiosyncrasies. I personally know all of my generators’ “personalities” and can tell from each individual when she’s not feeling good. But immediately, today? Would they crash all at once? I’m not a gambler, but I’d bet that everything isn’t going to blow up simultaneously. Remember, we’re talking about a pandemic, not EMP, etc. It goes against my grain to defer maintenance, but I know from experience that these durations are optimal for extending the machine’s life. There’s some padding. It doesn’t all go down the drain when I take a long weekend or vacation, so things should be okay for a while.
I’m not saying to not worry. But your power will probably stay on.
So that’s my short-term outlook. With operators working night shifts, the exposure to a virus at work would be staggered. Given that we’re all individuals with different immune systems, vectors, and patterns of movement, not everyone would get sick at the exact same moment or for the same interval. One guy would be out for a week, one guy for a few days, all in turn as it sweeps through the powerhouse and community. Remember that most powerhouses are at least somewhat rural. Considering these are all reasonably healthy individuals not fitting the mortality profile, most will be back to work sooner or later. Some will be home taking care of sick family as well, but we’ll have schedule coverage.
Let’s look at the medium term. Suppose most of us have gotten sick or are still in the throes of illness. We have a skeleton crew that’s one third of our typical makeup. Barring any statistically improbable major breakdowns and factoring the engineered redundancy inherent to generators, most of them are still going, but we’re coming up on maintenance. That’s where things might get tricky. What does a hydroelectric generator need to run?
Water Is Our Fuel
Water is obviously the primary factor and is truly out of our control. Our “fuel” availability is based on seasonal snowpack, temperature, and environmental situations outside of our immediate control. Beyond manpower, oil and components come first to mind for me. I am electrician and not an economist, but I know power and oil prices are closely tied, being effectively the same. Energy prices are closely related to your ECON 101 basics of supply and demand. With a broader economy hamstrung with low consumption due to an outbreak, production and, thus, power demands, will decrease. We’ve seen this before and we’re seeing it now. Oils need for generators, although measured in the thousands of gallons, are small potatoes in the greater picture. Fuel prices are down, so oil should be cheap, right? The problem is, this particular oil is specially manufactured to EPA, etc, specs. If demand and prices are down, oil production will also be slowed. While bearing oil can be filtered, it does break down over time. This would be a problem after an extended period but, if responsible maintenance intervals had been followed prior to the outbreak, this oil should be okay for the next several months.
Generators also have a few other consumable parts. Carbon brushes for excitation wear down at varying rates. Most journeyworkers I know take a conservative approach and change these well before they’re worn out. As such, we go through a significant amount of brushes and keep a deep stock. Many of these could probably get at least half again as much life before requiring changeout if closely monitored. There are several other greases, filters, etc. that, although I hate to say it, could most likely be deferred for a short while. This is not ideal, but we could stretch some extra life out of them.
However, we’re running out of parts. Most control equipment is solid state electronics and we’ve been able to skate by on spares for a few months with the occasional breakdown. A typical modern generator runs parallel systems operating in tandem so when one quits the other keeps going. Others have a new system backed up by older, less granular monitoring structures. Due to regulatory agencies, redundancy is the norm. Think about your home computer. Yes, you get the occasional glitch or virus, but that’s usually because of its multiple functions. But if all you did was one thing all day long with no other purpose and no outside influence, odds are it’d stay up and running for quite some time without missing a beat. I’m too young to remember the good old days when you could actually fix these things yourself. Instead, swap out a card, throw the old one in the trash bin.
All in all, solid state components with no moving parts generally last a long time. I’m not saying they can’t fail. They eventually will. But I’m also a believer in probability. However, for the sake of argument, let’s say a generator’s main PLC fails. With a redundant system, the backup would take control. Please remember the scope of this article is speaking to the short- and medium-term. That secondary system should be able to get us through the duration. The primary system has been in place for several years and only just now gave up the ghost. This is why we have redundant systems. Even a governmental bureaucracy can understand “Two is one, one is none.” And, if this generator totally goes down, remember factories and other power-hungry industries are offline and not needing juice so we probably have a few other generators just idling.
They say to write what you know, so I’m focusing on powerhouses. But I’d be remiss to leave out my lineman buddies and their place in this. The distribution system is also worth mentioning. Power generation is no good without a way to get the power from Point A to Point B. There are multiple breakers, transformers, and miles of line that comprise the most geographically significant portion of the system. Bearing in mind we’re talking a viral outbreak, these systems could be potentially indirectly vulnerable to some extent. Line and tree trimming crews are tight-knit groups that work and travel often in close quarters. One asymptomatic individual could quickly infect their entire 2-6 person crew just by driving to a job. That one person could take their whole group out of commission for a while. Working with another person out of a bucket at the end of a boom is an awkwardly intimate experience. You can smell what they ate for lunch and there is nowhere near enough room for your personal bubble. If one person is sick, their coworker will almost inevitably catch the bug.
However, as for the physical equipment, most substations are unmanned and remotely operated. Furthermore, a substation is typically comprised of stationary equipment, much of which goes years without major maintenance or even being operated. Aside from clearing fallen trees from lines, repairing them, and the occasional distribution transformer failure, most transmission and distribution electrical equipment could continue to operate as designed for extended periods between absolutely necessary maintenances.
I wish I could say every utility keeps multiple warehouses full of stock to fix every emergent problem immediately. However, with logistics, billing, and general bureaucracy, this simply is not the case. In a medium- to long-term situation, necessary parts might not be available. As it is now, it can take two months to order and receive something I could just drive to Home Depot and get off the shelf myself. With a manufacturing slowdown or complete stop, this could lead to generators going offline one by one. Like any machine, parts do wear out and necessitate replacement. Things can effectively die of old age. I feel, however, given a pandemic situation with the hardest part lasting maybe a year, the lights going out would be a concern secondary to more immediate food and medical shortages.
In closing, I don’t believe that a power outage is a major concern at this time. With the coronavirus being the issue at hand, people will get sick, life will be hard, but the power will stay on. Electrical crews will probably each in turn get the bug, be out for a few weeks, and go back to work. Recognizing itself as a lynchpin to modern life, utilities have robust equipment in place in addition to reliable and inherently redundant systems. While impacts to the individual employees will be felt, if the coronavirus spreads as anticipated, the power most developed nation residents take for granted will still be there. You’re not going to be in the dark and I’m more concerned about getting one last roll of toilet paper. Take care. – Journeyman