Who is an essential worker?
Turns out even part-time microgrid employees are, but it was news to some of them.
Because homes and hospitals need secure power now more than ever, 60Hertz facilitated the communication between one of our utility customers and the 56 communities in which they work that indeed, the part-time microgrid operators are classified as “essential workers”. Our April blog noted that lineman and certain utility personnel must remain healthy if they are to keep the lights on. In the very remote places we serve — villages like Russian Mission, Birch Creek, Newhalen, or St. Marys — face difficult decisions to keep COVID-19 out. On the other hand, rural electric cooperatives that provide power in these communities face an equal challenge: how to ensure power during a pandemic. In the last 45 days, many communities have enacted an all-out ban on people flying to or even returning home to the village.
Communicating that part-time, remote maintenance personnel are in fact Essential Workers is a credential that protects generation assets: even part-time operators must be allowed to leave their home during Hunker Down. 60Hertz software conveyed the message between the utility and various tribal councils, city councils and community leadership across their vast service territory. The utility reflects on the revealing response to the Essential Worker memo:
“The “essential workers” memo really stirred up a lot in the communities. Many places didn’t know they could allow [Operators] to go to work. I’ve heard several different complicated scenarios as to why. Because public health is VERY important in their small communities, any risk to that is addressed, and the respect for [stay at home orders] is pretty great.” - Joni Sweetman, Power Plant Supervisor.
Essential remote maintenance matters across all rural geographies
60Hertz notes that GOGLA, a global solar off-grid industry advocate, is also asking that “governments recognize off-grid solar as an “essential service”. GOGLA currently represents over 180 members globally.
Let’s paint the picture: one of 60Hertz’s users, Stuart Kingeekuk from Savoonga, Alaska explained that skilled electricians or mechanics from Anchorage normally visit his community two or three times a year. Even without a pandemic, Savoonga is notoriously difficult to reach: after flying 1.5 hours northwest from Anchorage, a skilled technician lands in Nome, a regional hub, before continuing on to Savoonga, flying 45 minutes across open water in a small aircraft. After arriving in Savoonga, and performing the work, weather delays have kept mechanics in the community for weeks. The extreme logistics, weather and risk have only worsened during COVID19.
The utility housing normally consists of a one-room trailer with a bunk-bed, electric kettle, microwave, and 1 window. It is adjoined to the diesel powerhouse itself and offers an incinerating toilet co-located with a Detroit Diesel 200 KW engine. Generally there isn’t sufficient bandwidth to stream videos. 60Hertz hears repeatedly that the personal cost to skilled mechanics is large, in terms of time away from family and the logistical costs.
This significant four week delay can cause adverse impacts on assets, too. Major maintenance for such remote assets will be postponed until 2021 if possible. Re-supply of consumable parts like filters is also a question. In Savoonga’s case, Stuart laughed with confidence as he reflected on his forward thinking supply purchases that will likely ensure he can make it through the rest of the year. Stuart was happy to report that his power plant is running well; this is certainly a relief to his utility since assisting Stuart or Savoonga in the event of a major power outage would be delayed, risk public health, or leave the village of approximately 700 people waiting weeks for a solution.