Utility Management Series: Planning for the Post-Pandemic Future

This series tackles the prevailing dilemmas happening in utility boardrooms across the United States, now covering the question: How to prepare during times of uncertainty?

Eating in restaurants, traveling to see loved ones, staying healthy… There are many things we once took for granted that this year has called into question. But water, electricity and gas are resources many of us continue to rely on despite the world changing around us. For this, we can thank our utilities. They have kept the lights on, the water running, and powered the ability for millions of Americans to work safely and remotely.

Earlier this year, Xylem employees and partners rallied to thank our utilities. I personally wanted to bring this message back to the forefront this National Preparedness Month and share a few words with electric utilities who are addressing an extremely active storm season on top of the COVID-19 pandemic.  

In previous years, a hurricane forecast served as a cry for neighboring utilities to send in crews and equipment to support power restoration. This practice, known as mutual assistance, relied on crews being able to travel and gather. Due to the pandemic, this practice has changed with staging sites centralized and workforces dispersed. For the future, preparedness plans must also shift to address new realities like this. The following are key things utilities should consider when reevaluating or rebuilding preparedness plans:

The impact of the pandemic is here to stay. While we could not have anticipated the events of this year, we must now be realistic that a “return to normal” won’t exactly be the same “normal.” Anticipate that social distancing, skeleton crews and decreased access to homes could be challenges that continue. Plan accordingly by running preparedness drills or tests within these new confines. Identify ways that crews can safely communicate without gathering in large groups and work at a safe distance from customers and each other. Look to resources and best practices from other utilities and organizations. For example, the American Public Power Association also has a wealth of resources available on their COVID-19 Information Hub.

Remote management is a must. One clear way to deal with smaller crews and social distancing is to capitalize on remote outage management. As you consider solutions, ask yourself, “How am I deploying assets that allow me to restore power remotely?” Previously utilities focused on deploying assets based on the need in a specific service territory. Now, outage management is critical across all service territories as utilities plan for restoring service quickly and safely. These systems can also provide the data you need to update customers and deploy crews most effectively. 

Your customers expect rapid updates on their service. The same labor force that is now comprised of millions of at-home workers is also stacked with a digital generation that expects data on-demand. For utilities, this means that customers are not only are conditioned to receive data quickly, they are also under pressure to have connectivity so they can work. Frequent status updates via text alerts and social media help reassure your customers that you’re working to get their service restored.    

Now more than ever, technology must grow with you. What problem are you trying to solve right now? What does your preparedness plan need to address in the next five, 10 and even 20 years? Ask your organization these questions if and when you consider deploying technology as part of your preparedness plan.

We’re here to help through the Xylem Watermark Partner Community Grants Program and Disaster Relief Assistance. The best preparedness plans can still fall short in restoring your community due to the pandemic or a natural disaster. These programs are designed to bridge the gap by supporting local nonprofits and humanitarian aid organizations.