Pandemic Planning and Response in Electric Utilities: SCE’s Experience

By Manuel Avendaño and Vishal Patel

The Coronavirus Disease 2019 (COVID-19) pandemic presents Southern California Edison (SCE) and other electric utilities with the challenge of providing safe and reliable electric service to support society’s needs, while addressing the potential for  widespread impact to its essential workforce as a result of the pandemic. This article provides an overview of key steps that SCE has taken to respond to COVID-19, in order to ensure continued, safe and reliable service to its customers, while protecting its employees and the public in the process. SCE is one of the largest electric utilities in the United States serving 15 million residents, spread over 129,500 square kilometers across Central, Coastal, and Southern California.

Emergency Planning and Response

SCE monitors the progress of the virus and updates contingency and communications plans in anticipation of large-scale person-to-person transmission that could impact critical business operations.  SCE’s areas of focus include but are not limited to:

  • Safety of Personnel
    The safety of employees is of utmost importance and prevention, detection, and surveillance actions are crucial in keeping the workforce safe.
  • Continuity of Critical Operations
    The potential loss of staff — including technical professionals and individuals with specialized knowledge — underscores the need to identify critical functions and operations.
  • Impact on Customers and Adapting to Load Shifts
    It may be impossible to maintain normal levels of reliability and outage response under conditions of extreme staff shortage, particularly if additional emergencies — wildfire, earthquake, cyber event or storm — were to occur during the peak waves of a pandemic.

SCE’s foundation for emergency response is based on the planning factors documented in its Storm Plan. These planning factors include the completion of all-hazards plans for coordinating responses to electrical disruptions and specific strategies for damage assessment, restoration, and mutual aid.  These plans are also aligned with Federal and local guidelines for emergency response.  Pandemic planning focuses on an event of unknown origin or duration that could potentially impact every employee depending on the severity of the public health emergency. There may also be impacts to the electrical system, if maintenance and repair activities are limited, due to employee/contractor illness and/or negative public sentiment about necessary and critical electrical outages during a pandemic.

Under the umbrella of the all-hazards approach to emergency planning, SCE developed and implemented the SCE Pandemic Response Plan to address the planning and response needs that a public health emergency presents to maintaining business continuity and employee safety. The SCE Pandemic Response Plan was developed with the purpose of providing an overview of specific actions to prepare for and respond to a pandemic. This plan can be adapted to address any type of pandemic (flu, coronavirus, etc.). While some specifics may vary based on the virus type, the overall response structure and operations remain the same. This plan is intended to focus on the broad categories of:

  • Preparedness and Communication
  • Surveillance and Detection
  • Response and Containment
  • Continuity of Operations

SCE’s Operating Units, e.g., Customer Service, IT, Transmission & Distribution, Generation, Energy Procurement have been identifying critical and essential roles and defining the responsibilities, resources, facilities, personnel, and actions required to ensure rapid and effective response to a corporate or department threat of a pandemic emergency and business continuity.

Safety of Personnel and Continuity of Operations

As part of its COVID-19 response efforts, SCE has established and communicated policies to implement the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) Interim Guidance for Businesses and Employers to Plan and Respond to Coronavirus Disease 2019. Consistent with CDC guidance, SCE established and implemented a telework policy, for every employee that is able to work from home, and social/physical distancing policies, for employees needing to work on location to manage the COVID-19 response. Examples of “on location staff” required are COVID-19 Incident Management Team, electric crews, and key supporting personnel.

SCE assessed essential utility functions and determined which can be effectively performed remotely. About 8,000 SCE workers are now teleworking.  SCE also evaluated which positions and job functions, out of necessity, must be performed on site. Approximately 5,000 SCE workers are performing essential, on-site job functions; social distancing and hygiene best practices, as described by the CDC and local public health agencies, have been adopted, as well as more frequent cleaning and sanitizing to support the on-site roles of those workers.  The following are the functions that SCE has determined cannot be performed remotely or transferred between locations:

  • Transmission and Distribution functions, including grid control (grid control center and distribution operations centers), troublemen, linemen, vegetation management, substation construction and maintenance (on-site repair and maintenance is only critical if there is an incident)
  • Operational Services functions, including corporate real estate (site maintenance is more critical in the current pandemic), transportation (vehicle maintenance, air operations), supply management (material management)
  • Environmental Services (field inspections for bio cultural resources – only critical in an incident)
  • Information Technology (on-site desktop maintenance, network maintenance, infrastructure repair)
  • Power Supply (generation, energy procurement)
  • Corporate Security (security operations center, guards)
  • Revenue Service Organization

Customer Support

SCE is communicating with the public through multiple channels, including a dedicated COVID-19 webpage, emails to customers, video messages, targeted paid and organic posts on social media, stories on SCE’s storytelling website, news releases, responses to media inquiries, and responses to customer calls. SCE is educating customers about suspending service disconnections and providing bill pay support, prioritization of essential outages to address public safety and wildfire risk, scam safety alerts, continuity of service during the crisis, as also informing customers about the measures the company is taking to ensure that field and on-site workers are practicing physical distancing and other CDC guidance. Many of the external communications are provided in multiple languages.

Utilities Well Prepared for COVID-19

With the unprecedented and fast-evolving situation created by the COVID-19 global pandemic, electric utilities have opportunities to enhance their emergency response structures, response plans, temporary guidelines, and customer support efforts to continue the provision of safe, reliable, and affordable service. SCE stands firm in developing and updating such actions that “keep the lights on” for all customers, while ensuring safety in the workplace and the society at large.


This article edited by Panos Moutis

For a downloadable copy of May 2020 eNewsletter which includes this article, please visit the IEEE Smart Grid Resource Center.

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Dr Manuel Avendaño is a Sr Engineering Manager at Southern California Edison (SCE). As member of SCE’s Integrated System Strategy, Manuel leads a team of engineering managers and engineers tasked with reimaging the transmission system to achieve 100% carbon-free electricity by performing interregional reliability assessments focused on the proliferation of utility-scale wind, solar, and energy storage; coordinating WECC and NERC participation and bulk-power system planning; and conducting long-term grid import planning analyses and transmission interconnection assessments. Previously, he was the Manager of Emerging Technology at Commonwealth Edison and Project Engineer at S&C Electric Company.Manuel earned a bachelor’s degree and a master’s degree in Electrical Engineering in Mexico and the PhD in Electrical Engineering in United Kingdom. Manuel, a Senior Member of IEEE, currently serves as the Chair of the IEEE Distribution Subcommittee and Chair of the R&D Committee of IEEE Smart Grid.

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Vishal C. Patel is Principal Manager of Integrated System Analysis (ISA) at Southern California Edison (SCE). As the leader of the ISA organization, he is primarily responsible for overseeing the technical analyses associated with electric system planning on SCE’s transmission, sub-transmission and distribution systems, and the development of grid related capital projects to maintain safety and reliability with applicable standards and policies. He has spent nearly 15 years at SCE and in his prior role was the Principal Manager for Corporate Technology Strategy, leading the internal team at SCE responsible for developing roadmaps to inform technology demonstrations and pilots across the utility value chain. Vishal received his Bachelor of Science in Electrical Engineering from California State Polytechnic University, Pomona, with a specialty in Power Systems. He is a Registered Professional Engineer in the state of California and a member of the IEEE.

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