Ensuring reliable electricity during COVID-19
Operations and maintenance of power transmission lines is as much of a contact sport as you can think of. Armies of ‘gangs’ are required to patrol towers every day to make sure that everything in order because you’re only as good as your weakest tower in the entire asset. I guess you can say that, on the face of it, power transmission Operations & Maintenance is like watching grass grow!
Change of seasons during the course of a year also impacts our ways of working and dictates certain preparedness. Primary among these is the pre-monsoon preparedness that technically starts from late March and continues till end of May/early June depending on the region. The primary responsibility of this phase is to make sure all the nuts and bolts and members in place before we enter the peak wind season of the year, which stretches and stresses our assets like no other phase of the year. If you ask any transmission engineer about the phase of life between March and May, you will not get a response since the person would be extremely busy completing all the PM checks on his/her asset!
True to this, as we rolled into March of this year, we were working on a massive program to rollout the PM checks against our entire asset base of 30 lines and 7 substations across 20 states. We were reading about Covid-19 gaining roots in India but it felt like something from a parallel universe. I clearly remember the day of 16th of March, when Sterlite Power went into a mandatory-work-from-home mode with minimal travel allowed. Shortly after that, some of the states went into a lockdown followed by a nationwide lockdown from the 24th of March.
The first reaction was to ensure safety of the entire ecosystem that works with us. We have a smaller team onboard and work with a large army of partners who come from companies of various sizes and geographical presence. Now, the most intriguing part of preparing against Covid-19 is the invisible nature of the problem. When one is preparing for a storm or any other type of event, one can easily identify the ‘target’ of preparedness and work towards mitigating the impact of the target. How does one prepare for a ‘target’ which can get you in myriad of ways?
The first toolkit in this battle was communication – incessant, regular and honest communication. We had hours of communication with our teams, our contractors, our drivers, our guest house caretakers to make sure everyone understands what we are dealing with here. The most critical item here was to thread the balance between preparedness and panic – one has to be abundantly prepared, to the level of paranoia on personal hygiene, but one cannot panic. This was the message delivered long and hard into our stakeholders.
The core topic here was to standardize the whole idea of hygiene, since this can be a very subjective issue. My hygiene can be different from your hygiene and that was perceived to be the biggest topic of concern. We rolled out strict guidelines to be used across our entire footprint on cleaning of guest houses, vehicles, personal hygiene etc to make sure there is no room for ambiguity here. A large amount of personal hygiene items were mobilized across the footprint, including for our contractors. Temperature screening is the other critical lead indicator of COVID-19 preparedness. We were running into supply issues with the digital thermometers so a personal mercury thermometer was procured for each member of our ecosystem, including the hundreds of contractors. This led to a change in definition of PPEs for our staff – it includes a helmet, harness, mask, a mercury thermometer and other such items. Temperature screenings were mandated twice a day for each individual to ensure proper safety, along with all the associated guidelines along social distancing etc
The second port of call, after ensuring safety of the ecosystem was to rationalize the scope of work. Despite power transmission being deemed as emergency work in the lockdown, the understanding wasn’t uniformly applied across the states. We did a massive exercise to re-prioritize the scope of work done in the regular course of time to make sure the absolutely necessary piece of work can continue to ensure reliable transmission of power. Risking a power outage during a lockdown, when the people are generally on the edge, would lead to a massive chaos and we were very cognizant of that during re-planning our work.
In its midst, our Hon’ble PM announced the 9 minutes event on 5th of April at 9 PM to show solidarity with India’s fight against COVID-19. This event was a mammoth exercise for the grid for 25% of the load disappeared within 2 minutes at 9 PM, which promptly came back at 9:09 PM.The entire ecosystem of grid management, right from POSOCO to RLDCs and SLDCs swung into action to plan for the event. Our entire team was involved in detailed planning and coordination with all authorities right until the execution late on Sunday.
Working in this period has made me even more appreciative of our nation’s governance and regulatory structure. This has been, and will be, an unprecedented event in the history of most living people but Governments, Central and States’, have not only acted with foresight and clarity but have also been agile about closing gaps, if any. There were gaps initially in the understanding of emergency services across all states but it was aligned very quickly. Not only were we able to get critical work started ASAP, we also got progressive support in ensuring we are able to complete all necessary work. It has kept us in a relatively okay place as we push the pedal to complete all PMs for monsoon preparedness starting from today, 20th April.
As we prepare to come back to normalcy, whatever that means in the post-COVID world, we all have to agree that this phase has taught us a lot in a short span of time. I would highlight three key takeaways for me:
- This has forced us to prepare an SOP and revise it in real-time anytime something changes. This is the literal equivalent of building an aeroplane as one flies it. There is an immense amount of learning that has come on emergency preparedness from this phase that would help us, all stakeholders, a lot in the long term. Cue the responses from Orissa after initial storms and how good they have become now!
- This phase has also taught us a lot about strategic technological interventions in our operations. I know exactly which places I need to keep an eye out for if something happens to my regular means of surveillance. This will lend itself into a digital blueprint relatively seamlessly
- There is a lot to be thankful for in our daily course of action. Not having any COVID cases across our entire set of stakeholders (knock on wood!), is something to be thankful about. Not having any incident on our lines is something to be thankful for
The motto of Sterlite Power “Access to reliable power is a fundamental right” never felt as real as it has felt in the last 4 weeks. I’m of the firm view that reliable power is the only thing standing between our current lifestyle and total chaos as any semblance of normalcy is predicated on electricity in today’s times. As I write this piece, I cannot be prouder of the team, direct and contractors, that support us through our operations. Each one of them is a hero and deserves our deepest gratitude.
Manya Ranjan, Chief Asset Officer, Sterlite Power