• brendon.james

Power demand, resilience, and reliability in the time of COVID-19

Source: http://www.gisinfo.net/newspages-news-1557-0

The COVID-19 virus is a global pandemic that is having a horrific impact on public health systems, the global economy and most important, human life and our way of life. Like the Spanish flu pandemic of 1918 and the many pandemics throughout history, there should be lessons learnt that can improve our public health care and economic systems for the better. The focus on this article will, however, be on energy systems, specifically the Power and Utility industry and the recent focus of many companies to improve Resilience.

The term Resilience came into focus in 2018 during an interesting legal argument between the Trump administration and The Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC), it started when: “Sec. Rick Perry and the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE), claimed that the resilience of the electric grid is threatened by the premature retirement of uneconomic coal and nuclear plants. DOE’s flawed proposal – to bail out these plants through a profit-guarantee mechanism – was considered and unanimously rejected in January by the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC), the agency charged with overseeing our nation’s electric grid” Zakaria and Panfil (2018).

FERC rejected the argument that coal plants and expired nuclear plants had any economic value in the power market and cannot represent resilience, however, larger questions remained for all in the Power and Utilities as well as Renewable Energy space-What does it mean to have a resilient grid? How do we define this? Can this be realistically achieved?

The best framework provided for thinking about grid resilience was put forward by Silverstein et al 2018 in their work for Grid Strategies LLC where they correctly identified customer service and customer outcomes as the benchmark for what a resilient grid is supposed to be. Storms, hurricanes, earthquakes, drought and economic upsets can all impact on the ability of Power and Utility companies to provide high quality and consistent electricity supply that has become critical for the public safety and health of citizens, especially in a disaster. A resilient grid is an electrical grid that can continue to supply power in a time of uncertainty with events that are beyond our control. The pandemic we face is no different. How can we keep the power running in a scenario where social distancing is impacting our ability to provide high-quality service and little to no outages to customers. Think about critical services from police stations, cell phone communication, and broadband towers, to our military complexes. Without a power supply that is both resilient and reliable the COVID- 19 response becomes 1000% times harder to manage. What is the cost-benefit analysis for an electricity grid that is resilient? Does our current experience change the way we calculate the economic value of achieving this?

The discussion on the economic value of a resilient and reliable grid is critical and this article will try to shine a light on this complex argument by discussing three areas:

  1. Resilient and reliable Grid: Different but Interconnected

  2. Power Demand will change with COVID- 19: What this uncertainty could mean?

  3. How can Renewable Energy support future preparedness for disasters (Natural or Public Health)?

Discussion point (1)- Resilient and reliable Grid: Different but Interconnected

For the electric sector, reliability can be defined as the ability of the power system to deliver electricity in the quantity and with the quality demanded by users. Reliability is generally measured by interruption indices defined by the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers Standard 1366” Clark-Ginsberg (2016). This is the industry standard approach to reliability however in these times of uncertainty grid reliability may not be enough. The National Infrastructure Advisory Council (2009) defines critical infrastructure resilience as:

The ability to reduce the magnitude and/or duration of disruptive events. The effectiveness of a resilient infrastructure or enterprise depends upon its ability to anticipate, absorb, adapt to, and/or rapidly recover from a potentially disruptive event.”

Resilience approaches emphasize the idea that disruptive events occur regularly and that systems should be designed to bounce back from unplanned events. The power sector must now create policies and systems that create a balance between both. Reliability and Safety can no longer be the ONLY focus. Resilience goes beyond and focuses on anticipation, absorbing and adapting to low probability high consequence events like COVID-19.

Discussion Point (2)- Power Demand will change with COVID- 19: What could this uncertainty mean?

The COVID- 19 epidemics has created an environment for major utilities where they are hit with a reduction in demand for power in some countries like Italy. Figure 1 for example

Figure 1: Power Demand in Italy after COVID- 19 Lockdown

In the first week of nation-wide quarantine, power demand fell by 8%. That was a 7.3% drop compared to the same week in 2019 (Week 11). Overnight loads, between 01:00 and 06:00 last Sunday (16 March 2020) were at their lowest for March since the 2016 Easter weekend” Osbaldstone (2020)

These Utility companies (like those in Italy) and are still expected to maintain a high level of reliability even in the middle of the pandemic. It is critical, and it can mean the difference between life and death. Another consideration is a reduction in revenue from consumers because of the ‘stay at home’ orders being put in place by most countries. This aligns with the definition of what resilience requires. What can achieve this? Can Utilities absorb a reduction in demand, maintain high reliability for critical infrastructure like hospitals, reduce the numbers of employees working in the field and maintain the power supply to all customers? This is an extreme challenge and I would argue that Renewable Energy strategies can assist here. According to Wood Mackenzie’s research in Italy showed that “non-dispatchable renewables also saw big week-on-week swings, with wind generation down 46% (-280 GWh) and solar up 24% (71 GWh) – highlighting that supply changes were being driven by renewable resource availability as well as lower demand” Osbaldstone (2020). These statistics are very important to note and require further research. But it must be noted that there has been an increase in the utilization of Solar Energy during this time.

Discussion Point (3)- How can Renewable Energy support future preparedness for disasters (Natural or Public Health)?

I would propose Solar PV Energy and battery technology using the microgrid approach can improve resiliency. What is a microgrid? It is what it sounds like. A microgrid system is a power supply system that consists of loads and distributed energy resources, such as renewable energy sources, combined heat and power generation, fuel cell and energy storage systems. It is like a smaller grid within the larger Utility grid. It gives you flexibility and can run independently of the larger grid.

Power and Utility companies can use Solar and Battery Micro Grids to minimize massive failures throughout the system. It is important to remember the nature of national grids is that they can be highly interdependent so major failures can cascade throughout the system causing massive outages, microgrids can minimize this because they are flexible. You will have much less load balancing that must be done with the finite personnel available (remember the COVID- 19 virus requires minimal exposure for even essential utility employees so Utility headcounts will be low) and you can place critical infrastructure on smaller grids like hospitals that can continue to run even with major outages to the main grid (microgrids can run independently for multiple days). In the humanitarian tragedy that is impacting many countries right now the information from the power sector in Italy can inform policymakers on properly integrating Solar PV and Wind energy in new ways. It is heartbreaking what the world is going through right now but we need to ensure that these lessons are not lost when we must pick up the pieces.

In Conclusion

We need to look at microgrids as part of the policy and integrated grid planning tools that can be used to improve power and grid resilience in our uncertain times. Let us all do our part by supporting social distancing measures, practicing personal hygiene, not touching our face and using this time at home to read, reflect and prepare.


Brendon James,

BA Geography, MBA Occupational Health and Safety, MSc Process Safety Management, MBA Sustainable Energy Management

LinkedIn: https://www.linkedin.com/in/brendon-james-94332a18/

"I am a lover of Economics, Energy, Stoic Philosophy, Crix and Milo in that order."


  • Clark-Ginsberg, Aaron. 2016. “What’s the Difference between Reliability and Resilience?”. RAND Corporation. Technical Report. DOI: 10.13140.

  • Silverstein, Alison, Rob Gramlich and Michael Goggin. 2018. “A Customer-focused Framework for Electric System Resilience”. Grid Strategies LLC. Pp 1-77.

  • National Infrastructure Advisory Council (2009). “Critical Infrastructure Resilience Final Report and Recommendations”. National Infrastructure Advisory Council.

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