COVID-19 watch: How Ontario's energy sector is responding to 'the big one'

COVID-19 watch: How Ontario’s energy sector is responding to ‘the big one’

Ontario's energy sector has put measures in place to ensure continuity of service for the province's power supply amid uncertainty caused by the novel coronavirus, industry stakeholders say.

"The biggest challenge for energy companies is ensuring ongoing operations," explained Vince Brescia, the president of the Ontario Energy Association, which represents various power companies.

Brescia expressed confidence in the industry reaction to the crisis, saying that companies have put into place protocols to ensure employees from non-critical areas are working from home and that measures are being undertaken so that employees limit interaction with incoming workers on shift changes.

Energy stakeholders tend to have extensive contingency plans in place for a variety of events that could compromise operation, including attacks and disasters. This, Brescia said, falls into that category. "This is the big one."

Key stakeholders have taken steps to respond to the coronavirus, which has caused the province to shut down public schools for two weeks following March Break and has seen a recommendation from the Centre for Disease Control of no gatherings of more than 50 people for the next eight weeks.

Ontario Power Generation (OPG), which produces about half of the province's electricity, says it has been planning for coronavirus scenarios since it became an issue in January. "We're well-prepared for this unprecedented event," assured spokesperson Neal Kelly.

OPG has asked staff who can work from home to do so, and has established a crisis management communication centre to address coronavirus-related issues. Employees have been told about the importance of proper hygiene and social distancing, and hand sanitizer is available throughout the company's various facilities, Kelly added. "Our key thing is to make sure that our employees are safe, that our operations are safe," he said. OPG is taking extra care around critical personnel who operate the control rooms, and ensuring that no one who does not need to be in the rooms enters. The company has also shut down visitor centres and facility tours in an effort to reduce risk.

The Independent Electricity System Operator (IESO) is also taking precautions. The "vast majority" of the IESO's 800 employees are working from home, vice-president Terry Young told QP Briefing. He also acknowledged that with so many people across the province working from home the demand on the province's power system has decreased, although it's difficult to tell yet how much of that is due to coronavirus-related behaviour compared to daily weather fluctuations.

The changes in behaviour come during what is typically an ebb in power demand as consumers are using less heat and aren't ready to turn on the air conditioning, he added. The IESO will continue to monitor power demand to determine if it will shut down generation that's not needed at the moment, he added.

The Ontario Energy Board (OEB) is changing its normal operating procedures in response to the circumstances, with Chief Operating Officer Mary Anne Aldred outlining in a memo steps it is taking. "We ask that visitors to OEB offices who have travelled to high-risk areas, or think they may have been exposed to COVID-19 or are showing symptoms of it, to refrain from attending our offices for the applicable quarantine period," she wrote late last week as the coronavirus was declared a pandemic. Oral hearings and technical conferences have been canceled in the near term, and stakeholder meetings and working groups will be conducted through conference calls and webinars. Business travel and community outreach meetings, including those in Toronto, have also been canceled due to coronavirus concerns.

Hydro One and other electricity companies are taking steps to ensure continuity of service for consumers who are facing uncertainty due to the coronavirus by extending their winter moratoriums on disconnections. Additionally, Hydro One has started a pandemic relief fund for consumers who are experiencing hardship or impacts due to the coronavirus. "We hope this fund and the added measures provide our customers peace of mind so they can concentrate on what matters most — keeping their loved ones safe," the company stated in a release. Customers who fit that situation are asked to call Hydro One to see what the company, whose largest shareholder is the government of Ontario, can do for them.

Energy Minister Greg Rickford's office shared the approach and principles the government is applying to the industry during this crisis. "We are looking at all options to help Ontarians through this uncertain time," spokesperson Sydney Stonier stated, leaving nothing off the table in a quickly evolving situation. "To date, we have focused on our most vulnerable by working with electricity providers and Enbridge to extend the winter disconnect period so no families are left without electricity or natural gas. We will continue to review all options, but at the moment we are focusing all of our attention on those who need it most."

David Hains

QP Briefing Reporter

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