As we near the six-month mark of COVID-19 in the U.S., gas utilities have tackled the immediate business needs created by this pandemic. They have implemented short-term safety policies and modified their processes, put asset management projects on hold, migrated many of their employees to temporary work from home status while requiring control personnel live on-site, and stopped termination of service to customers due to non-payment. This business structure isn’t sustainable for any utility – not for their finances, operations or employees’ well-being.

At the same time, reports of a potential second wave of COVID-19 cases fills the headlines, leaving gas utility leaders wondering, “How do we move on from here?”. In a recent Utility Dive webinar, Miranda Aldrich, President of Americas for Copperleaf, shared a new four-phase model of decision making for utilities in such an uncertain world while Paul Barnett, Senior Program Manager at Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA), shared his utility’s experience with this framework.

Aldrich explained that most companies have completed Phase 1: Communication and Safety, in which immediate needs are addressed, and have moved to Phase 2: Stabilization.

In Stabilization, utilities continue adapting to the new way of working they established in Phase 1, while starting to understand the near-term implications of the crisis. How will this impact capital investments? How do we re-prioritize projects? What are customers’ expectations and how are those continuing to change?

At TVA, Barnett says they’ve experienced the following impacts during Phase 2:

  • Meetings have become more efficient, allowing TVA to get to back-burner projects that will help them navigate the future
  • Field Operations and Sales teams have been able to focus on planning since they are not on the road as they typically are
  • The Construction Management team has successfully pulled forward tasks that require smaller crews and less physical proximity

However, Aldrich explained that many utilities find themselves stuck in Stabilization, unable to progress to Phase 3: Planning for Recovery, which is critical to their survival.

In Phase 3, utilities start defining what the new normal looks like and what resources are needed to execute on that. They define the customer and social priorities that will drive their decision, and map out the financial impacts they can and can’t sustain.

TVA believes they are far from their new normal – Aldrich shared they don’t fully understand the financial impact of COVID-19 in this fiscal year or next year, but that doesn’t stop them from tackling near-to-mid-term challenges, including:

  • System loads being down has caused challenges and impacted their rates as they continue to adjust their generation goals
  • Southeastern states are starting to ease off of stay-at-home limitations – their crews are starting to get back into the field, but prioritizing what work needs to be done is tough
  • Some of the newer regulations that were going into effect have been relaxed, which has helped them in light of COVID-19 delays
  • Without insights or information from their major C&I customers, they don’t know when those companies will be bringing their ops back on-line

So, how do utilities move into Phase 3: Planning for Recovery, when there is still so much uncertainty?

1 | Make data-driven decisions. Utilities with Advanced Metering Infrastructure (AMI) are best-positioned to do this given the detailed historical and real-time data that they can access.

2 | Develop the ability to run what/if scenarios using that data. This may require hiring analysts or outsourcing to support this type of modeling.

3 | Shift to continuous planning. Five-year, three-year or even annual planning processes are no longer capable of allowing utilities to respond and adapt as our conditions change.

These same principles apply as utilities move on to the final phase, Phase 4: Monitor and Evaluate. This is an on-going process in which utilities are constantly updating their models and adapting to changing circumstances. Both high quality and quantities of data are essential in Phase 4 – data that is impossible to capture and communicate without AMI.

At Sensus, we have the AMI solutions gas utilities need to protect their employees and customers’ safety while giving all stakeholders the data they need to plan for and adapt in the future. For more information on how Sensus can help you get started with AMI, click here.