By: Robb Wilson, Vice President of Operations
As an operations guy, I get a lot of questions about whether our renewable projects have been hampered by stay-at-home and shelter-in-place orders. We have certainly needed to take extra safety precautions, but I’m thankful to say that our work has only been minimally impacted at this point. In this post, I’d like to share my answer to the most commonly asked questions.
Q: Can renewable projects still operate as normal?
Yes. Large-scale renewable energy projects can operate well in a social distancing scenario. Nuclear, coal or natural gas plants require hundreds of people in a small area to operate, which can be difficult in current conditions, but renewable projects operations are very different.
Unlike a 250-MW turbine or fossil fuel plant that requires many people to fix and maintain equipment in close proximity, solar plant maintenance spans hundreds or thousands of acres with small equipment pads distributed hundreds of feet apart. These pads are where a substantial amount of maintenance occurs. In addition, wind maintenance take place in confined spaces up towers, but there will likely only be two people in a tower at a time and maintaining six feet of distance is easy to comply with. So, by nature, solar and wind maintenance crews are working far away from each other.
Q: Are there times when field workers must interact closer than six feet?
While our crews typically work in teams of two, we have instructed everyone to drive and work individually in light of the pandemic. We now have a “one tech, one box” rule which prevents workers from touching the same piece of equipment. Though they already wear gloves because they are dealing with electricity, technicians now also wear masks and disinfect equipment as much as possible.
Q: Surely you worry about some aspect of operations during this time?
The safety of our employees remains our top priority, but thankfully, we are in a good position to operate safely and reliably throughout this period. That said, it is helpful to approach this question from the perspective of planned and unplanned maintenance.
Planned maintenance is expected and scheduled, just like changing your oil every 3,000 miles. The parts and schedule associated with this routine maintenance have not been impacted and we do not foresee impacts at this time.
What is more difficult and holds greater risk is unplanned maintenance. Just like when your car’s transmission suddenly stops working, unplanned maintenance can occur at any time without exact blueprints as to how to fix the problem. The biggest issue we see with unplanned maintenance is obtaining parts. However, as a vertically integrated Independent Power Producer (IPP) managing the full project life cycle from development to operations, we are well positioned to leverage our strong supplier relationships. This may not be the case for operator-only businesses. Nevertheless, we are proactively looking at how we can continue to “plan for the unplanned.”
Q: Don’t you have some employees that support operations who work in offices? Aren’t they impacted?
Like many companies, those of us who can work from home are doing so, and we have hit a productive, efficient rhythm of remote work. A very small number of workers must go to our Salt Lake City, Utah office in order to operate our Control Center. sPower monitors the performance of all projects across the country remotely. Those teams do not have to be in close proximity, however, and they are allowed to work in the office for this essential duty.
Q: Will you continue to operate as normal in the future, as the uncertain social, political and economic environment continues?
Despite the uncertainty, conditions look good for operations to continue. Federal and state governments have deemed utility energy as critical infrastructure, so our workers remain essential. Also, again, the advantages of renewable energy maintenance will enable operations to continue relatively unimpeded. Still, we will keep our focus on preparation, safety and reliability.
Making sure our employees feel safe on the job has always been our priority, even before the outbreak. Although we’ve only needed to make minimal changes so far, we have not taken the situation lightly. We have devoted a lot of time to balance risk and safety and take the right precautions so that our employees and customers don’t have to worry.
Our assets’ resilience during this time is just another reason that renewable energy is a slam dunk. With lean operations, we can continue to produce many megawatts of reliable, predictable power at very high efficiencies. Every minute we can keep our wind and solar projects running is a minute we don’t have to burn fossils, providing more clean, cost-effective energy to businesses and communities