For electric utilities that operate in Caribbean countries, planning for hurricanes is a year-round endeavor. Add Covid-19 into the mix, and things start to get even more complicated—especially since this year’s hurricane season is expected to bring “above-normal” activity.
“We’re faced with an unprecedented challenge—a pandemic and a predicted overly active 2020 hurricane season,” Karl Cowan, Manager of System Control for Jamaica Public Service Company (JPS), said during a recent webinar. “In power system analysis terms, this would be called a double contingency.”
The annual Atlantic hurricane season runs from June 1 through November 30. This year, the U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) has put the odds of an above-normal season at 60%. The chances of near-normal activity are 30% and below-normal, just 10%, according to NOAA’s Climate Prediction Center.
The combination of several climate factors is driving the forecast, NOAA explained in a news release in May. These include the absence of El Niño conditions to suppress hurricane activity; warmer-than average surface temperatures in the tropical Atlantic Ocean and Caribbean Sea; and several wind-related factors, including reduced vertical wind shear, weaker tropical Atlantic trade winds, and an enhanced West African monsoon.
Utilities in the hurricane belt are taking notice—but then again, they never stop preparing for the worst. When a powerful storm hits, they are on the front lines. It’s not just about turning on lights; electric power is essential to communications, food and water supply, hospital care, and all sorts of other vital services.
Many utilities around the region support each other when a disaster strikes, and this year’s “multi-hazard” environment has led to heightened planning, according to Cletus Bertin, Executive Director of the Caribbean Electric Utility Services Corporation (CARILEC). Regional health authorities have been working with CARILEC and other organizations to ensure that providers of different services all follow proper health guidelines when responding to disasters. (See related story below, A Helping Hand.)
The Jamaican Experience
In Jamaica, as in other countries in the region, hurricane preparedness is more complicated this time around. During a recent webinar organized by the CARILEC Renewable Energy Community (CAREC)—a forum of energy professionals—a team from JPS talked about the implications of Covid-19.
A Helping Hand
Under the CARILEC Disaster Assistance Programme (CDAP), electric power providers send lineworkers to help fellow utilities get their transmission and distribution systems back up and running after a disaster. Most utilities that belong to CARILEC participate (27 of the 33); they make annual contributions to a fund, which they can then tap into when a major storm hits.
The assisting utilities cover the wages and overtime pay of the workers they send, and the CDAP Fund covers expenses such as transportation, lodging, and meals for the visiting line crews, subject to certain caps. (Once the established caps are reached, the affected utility covers the expenses.)
During the 2017 hurricane season, 203 utility workers under CDAP helped out their counterparts in Anguilla, the British Virgin Islands, and Dominica, in response to Irma and Maria; two years later, after Dorian, 49 lineworkers went to the Bahamas to lend a hand.
While this is not necessarily the only support the affected utilities receive—help often arrives from farther afield too—it certainly comes as a “welcome relief” at a critical time, according to Cletus Bertin of CARILEC. “The crews are almost folk heroes in the jurisdictions when they go in,” he said in an interview.
This year, CARILEC is working closely with the Caribbean Public Health Agency (CARPHA) and the Caribbean Disaster Emergency Management Agency (CDEMA), along with associations representing the region’s telecommunications industry (CANTO) and water and sewer service providers (CAWASA) to ensure that they are all on the same page with pandemic-related procedures.
“You can’t have one sector following protocols and other front-line workers are doing different things. That would make little sense,” Bertin explained. A virtual simulation exercise scheduled for later this month will assess how the CARILEC and CANTO plans and procedures will play out in a pandemic environment.
Even in normal times, hurricane planning is a complex task with many moving parts. In fact, as soon as one hurricane season ends, it’s time to start preparing for the next one, the JPS team said. The utility moves through a months-long checklist of tasks that include managing vegetation, shoring up poles, stocking materials, training employees and contractors, and updating technology. The last step is to go through drills and simulations to make sure everything is in place for a worst-case scenario.
Like many other utilities in the region, JPS has had plenty of real-life practice. Cowan reviewed the utility’s history with hurricanes and tropical storms in recent decades, from Gilbert in 1988 to Sandy in 2012, with Ivan (2004), Dean (2007), Gustav (2008), and Nicole (2010) blowing through in between.
Gilbert and Ivan were both Category 5 hurricanes that knocked out 100% of the island’s electricity, but the restoration experience was vastly different; it took 120 days to get the power system back to normal after Gilbert and 43 days after Ivan. In the case of the last three storms, it took between 7 and 18 days to fully restore power, according to Cowan.
While every storm has its own peculiarities and challenges, he said, “we have steadily increased our restoration efficiency, and we’re constantly evolving.”
It’s all about planning and discipline—developing sound protocols and sticking to them, especially when the pressure is on to restore power after a storm, explained Charley Parchment, Manager of Operations Planning at JPS. “Restoration by itself is challenging as it is, but now, unfortunately, we have to contend with Covid,” he said.
“In the Caribbean, we have not yet experienced a restoration under a pandemic,” Parchment noted, adding that the utility is “superimposing Covid mitigation strategies on our already established restoration protocols.”
Some pandemic-related strategies are already in place in the utility’s day-to-day operations. Sherika Frater-Gilpin, Generation Systems Operator at JPS, talked about the crisis management plan the utility has put in place to deal with the situation.
“Having a solid plan cannot be overstated,” she said. “An updated emergency operating plan was implemented prior to the first confirmed case of Covid-19 in Jamaica.”
In the past few months, about 60% of JPS employees have been working from home. As of June 1, when more people started to come back to the office, the company instituted new protocols to keep employees safe; these include staggered work schedules, different office layouts, heightened cleaning procedures, temperature checks, hand sanitizer stations, and personal protective equipment such as masks or face shields.
In this context, hurricane recovery planning gets even more intense. When Jamaica is bracing for a hurricane, JPS normally houses power restoration teams on its premises to be at the ready. But what if a team member were to become infected with Covid-19? Government guidelines would require closing the location for cleaning and quarantining all occupants for 14 days. That possibility sent planners back to the drawing board. The revised protocols call for dividing up personnel into more teams and housing them in separate locations; that way, even if someone got sick, operations could continue.
Given the unusual situation this year, it’s likely that in the event of a hurricane, restoration times would increase, Cowan said, adding that JPS will undertake a public campaign to raise awareness so that people will “tailor their expectations” about when they could see their power restored.
Meanwhile, the contingency planning and drills continue. Cowan described the task ahead in the words of the Jamaican powerhouse sprinter Usain Bolt: “Behind the scene is where everything is done, to get you to that one race that you have to run.”