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New York Grid Operators Living Onsite to Keep Power Flowing

Workers charged with keeping the lights on in New York are now living on-site at upstate control centers to avoid the coronavirus.


Four teams of control-room operators for the New York Independent System Operator moved into trailers at two sites this week, a voluntary sequestration that could last weeks.


The highly skilled workers are essential to managing the flow of electricity on the grid and need to be kept isolated from potential infection, according to Richard Dewey, NYISO’s chief executive officer. It’s a sign of the escalating measures being taken to protect the nation’s critical infrastructure as the virus spreads.


“It’s a pretty dramatic step,” Dewey said Thursday in an interview. “We’ve had this plan for years and hoped never to use it.”

The 37 workers, including catering staff, moved into the trailers Monday at the grid operator’s main control site in Rensselaer and a backup facility in Guilderland. They work in close quarters for 12-hour shifts and aren’t allowed to leave the compounds. The modest trailers each house two people and include a small kitchen, bath and propane heating.


“These are not fancy Winnebagos,” Dewey said.


This is the first time NYISO has ever needed to implement such a lockdown plan. Other grid operators have gone to 12-hour shifts and 4-team rotations, but Dewey isn’t aware of any that have sequestered workers.


PJM Interconnection LLC, the biggest U.S. grid stretching from Washington, D.C., to Chicago, has cots, showers and food available for employees should control room operators need to be sequestered. But it hasn’t asked them to stay beyond their shifts, spokeswoman Susan Buehler said. Grid operators in California, Texas and New England have all isolated crucial employees and implemented similar pandemic protocols.


Jon Sawyer, manager of grid operations at NYISO, is one of the employees who agreed to leave family behind to ensure that power supplies aren’t disrupted by the deadly virus. He said they’re starting to acclimate to the new accommodations, including video calls to people on the outside and jogging around the compound.


“The move-in was quite hectic but we’re now in a routine,” Sawyer said. “We’re here for 12-hour shifts and we’re used to being here.”


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