Effective planning, aggressive steps make pandemic response a success

Extraordinary times and extraordinary measures – these are the kinds of scenarios that people who manage risk for electric cooperatives think long and hard about year in and year out, even when things are going smoothly. This kind of thinking is what prepared Great River Energy to continue reliable service when the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic struck.

Plexiglass shields were installed in key areas of Great River Energy’s largest power plant to protect power plant operators from other workers as a response to the coronavirus.

“Planning for extreme events is incredibly important for electricity providers. We understand our role in providing an essential service to our member-owners is critical, and we are good at making sure we are prepared for almost anything,” said Mike McFarland, Great River Energy’s director of enterprise risk management. “Electricity is more than a convenience. Just think of the critical nature of power right now – you need to keep the lights on in hospitals and other important facilities.”

Great River Energy created its pandemic plan in 2009 to help ensure the cooperative could continue operating reliably if such an event were to occur. That plan was developed in response to the H1N1 outbreak and was later refreshed due to the Avian Flu threat.

According to McFarland, having that plan in place proved valuable when, in January, Great River Energy began to anticipate COVID-19 would have a significant impact on the United States. After monitoring the spread of the coronavirus in other countries, Great River Energy activated its pandemic plan at a low level on Feb. 28.

Great River Energy began communicating regularly to its employees, increased cleaning and sanitizing at all its facilities and reviewed critical staffing needs.

The cooperative stepped up its response even further on March 12 by elevating its pandemic plan to the next level in response to the rapidly spreading coronavirus.

“We wanted to get ahead of the situation and took aggressive steps that most others were not taking yet,” McFarland said.

For example, McFarland said the cooperative required everyone who could reasonably work remotely to do so starting March 13.

“Today’s technology is amazing, and our innovative workforce adapted quickly. Our technology systems fully supported us and we have continued business as usual to the extent anyone could expect in such unprecedented times,” he said.

There are many Great River Energy employees who are directly involved in the daily operations of the electric grid who still need to report to the company’s facilities every day. The cooperative is taking many precautions to protect those employees and McFarland says the measures have been a success.

For instance, at Coal Creek Station—the cooperative’s largest power plant in Underwood, N.D.— plexiglass shields have been installed in key areas to protect power plant operators from other workers.\

In Minnesota, system operations control center employees practice social distancing and clean workstations between shifts. Crews who work different hours use separate entrances when entering the control center at shift changes. Older fleet vehicles have been brought back into the rotation to allow one company vehicle per person for field technicians who work in pairs.

Great River Energy is also prepared to sequester key employees on site if the pandemic evolves to that point. For now, staff is healthy and that step is not necessary.

“Our employees take their role very seriously, and they have stepped up to make sure we all stay healthy and able to perform our critical tasks,” McFarland said.

Great River Energy is also working closely with its 28 member-owner cooperatives, key industry groups and government officials.

“Cooperatives have always had strong relationships and in times like these, you see a lot of value in those relationships. We work closely with other neighboring utilities as well, and our relationships with them are also extremely valuable,” McFarland said.

McFarland said if there is one thing he wants to make known it’s that electric cooperatives and every other industry contributor plans rigorously to ensure that the lights stay on, even in the most challenging times. He said Great River Energy has worked hard to spread the word and put peoples’ minds at ease.

“We are committed to ensuring reliable electric service and we are well prepared,” McFarland said.