As the novel coronavirus pandemic disrupts industries and the entire national economy, Vernon “Buddy” Hasten of the Arkansas Electric Cooperatives Corp. knows just how vital his top job is: keeping the lights on for 500,000 homes and businesses, not to mention hospitals and police stations.
“When you talk about critical infrastructure, electricity is the key to everything you need to have,” said Hasten, who took over as president and CEO of AECC in September. “A hospital can’t treat patients without power.”
Hasten and top officials at other utilities like Entergy Arkansas, the state’s largest, are shifting into procedures to keep generating, transmitting and distributing electricity. AECC and the state’s 17 power distribution cooperatives have plans for “sequestering” crucial workers, with workers living and working for two-week stretches at critical facilities like power plants before swapping with another crew for two weeks.
The utilities are also assuring the public that plans and resources are ample to avoid power disruptions, including at Entergy’s Arkansas Nuclear One plant near Russellville, which along with a Mississippi nuclear site produces up to 70% of power used by Entergy Arkansas’ 700,000 customers.
“We continue operating our plants safely, securely and reliably,” Entergy Arkansas spokesman David Lewis told Arkansas Business. “Currently there is no impact on the delivery of power to our customers.” He cited the company’s comprehensive business continuity plan, and expressed confidence that power will continue to flow to homes and businesses, and that the investor-owned utility is poised to respond to any risks.
“The energy sector, including nuclear power, is categorized as ‘critical infrastructure’ vital to the nation,” Lewis said. “Its continuity of operations under any circumstance, including a pandemic threat, is regarded as a national priority.”
Rob Roedel, an AECC spokesman, said critical infrastructure employees include power plant workers, transmission line workers, power control center employees and linemen for the distribution co-ops.
“A couple of weeks ago we implemented what we call our pandemic plan,” Hasten said. “Part of our business model is to think about these contingencies. We’re following CDC guidance on health issues, with about 75% of our employees working from home. [Some 2,000 people work at AECC or its distribution cooperatives, Roedel said.]
“We’re deep-cleaning and keeping common and critical areas virus-free. And, so far, we know of no positive cases among our employees or individual cooperatives’ employees,” Roedel said.
Hasten told Arkansas Business that offices are open for employees who can’t work at home, but lobbies have generally been closed to the public. Members are making their electric payments through drive-up windows or on the internet. “We’re limiting contact for the health of workers and the public,” he said Monday. AECC has identified about 60 of its employees as critical workers, along with hundreds working at the individual cooperatives.
“We put out guidance to restrict employee travel, asking them to put off cruises or vacations, and people have understood,” Hasten said in a phone interview. “If need be, we’re ready to ‘sequester’ certain employees as the situation evolves.” That would mean splitting employees into two-week groups to work and stay near critical sites without public interaction. “They might stay onsite in an RV or camper, or we may rent out portions of nearby hotels so that there’s no mingling of our employees with staff or the public,” Hasten said. “After they worked two weeks, we’d sanitize and put in the next sequestered crew, leapfrogging two weeks by two weeks.”
Critical employees will carry correspondence from the federal Department of Homeland Security giving them the ability to cross checkpoints, etc., if developments require official lockdowns or travel limits.
“We do emergency drills for these types of situations regularly,” Hasten said. “These are Tier 1 employees critical to infrastructure, and they’ll be able to move about the state to repair transmission lines, substations, etc.”
Lewis said Entergy Arkansas was directing all employees to adhere to social distancing protocols and self-checking for symptoms. “The company has suspended all nonessential domestic and international business travel by commercial airline or forms of mass transit,” he said. “We continue to monitor the situation closely and are working with public health officials to implement any recommended public health measures as directed.”
Entergy Corp., Entergy Arkansas’ parent company based in New Orleans, has also through its Entergy Charitable Foundation established the COVID-19 Emergency Relief Fund.
"The health and safety of our customers, employees and communities is Entergy's top priority," said Leo Denault, chairman and CEO of Entergy Corp. "For more than 100 years, Entergy has never wavered in our commitment to supporting our customers and the communities we serve. This pandemic is no different. During this challenging time, we are helping lessen the impact of this crisis on the most vulnerable in our communities. I strongly encourage our business partners to join us in this effort."
Low-wage working families and lower-income elderly and disabled customers make up about 40% to half of Entergy's customer base, the company said in a statement.
Thus, Entergy shareholders are committing $700,000 to the emergency fund to help qualifying customers with basic needs like food, rent and mortgage costs until financial disruptions stabilize. Grants from the fund will be provided to United Way organizations and other nonprofit partners across Entergy's service area.
Shareholders will also match employee contributions to the COVID-19 relief efforts of local United Way organizations up to $100,000, the company said.
The utility company has also announced other steps in the crisis, including:
With support from regulators, customer disconnects are suspended for now.
The company is working with a network of community advocates to request a funding increase in the Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program to help alleviate financial hardships caused by COVID-19 on vulnerable households.
The utility is developing “bill payment solutions and tools” to help customers pay their accumulated balances once the disconnect moratorium is lifted.