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LI commercial electric use down by up to 15% because of pandemic

Electric use by Long Island’s businesses has declined up to 15 % since the first days of the coronavirus pandemic, and regional energy suppliers continue to alter protocols for responding to emergencies, including sequestering some employees, an official said.

Overall electrical use is down 4% to 5%, according to PSEG Long Island president and chief operating officer, Dan Eichhorn, but the utility’s roughly 100,000 commercial customers have seen a more precipitous drop — 12% to 15%, he said.

The shift isn’t unexpected, as the state’s NY PAUSE initiative shut down most nonessential businesses. The shift is offset by a corresponding increase of around 14 % in residential electric use, he said.

For weeks, PSEG and power plant owner National Grid have been sequestering employees in undisclosed locations to make sure the electric grid and power plants keep operating as the virus sweeps through the region. 

PSEG has kept a force of sequestered employees to operate an alternate grid control room should its main operations in Hicksville become infected with the virus. Four volunteer workers at a time are living off site in trailers to reduce their risk of infection.

“They are basically living in their own RV for two weeks straight,” Eichhorn said.

Power plants are operating under similar protocols, in line with state utility standards. National Grid spokeswoman Wendy Ladd said the company has more than 50 employees sequestered on Long Island at two large power plants and five smaller so-called peak-power units.

Separately, National Grid has 20 sequestered employees to operate the region's natural gas distribution center. The force, a combination of management and unionized workers, is equipped with needed supplies, medical support, special cleaning services and "living/sleeping accommodations," Ladd said.

Meanwhile, PSEG has altered a protocol for workers entering customer homes, restricting workers from entering except in emergencies or power outages centered inside a home or business.

The few PSEG employees who may now be required to go into a home will suit up in full protective gear, he said — full body gear, masks, gloves and face shields. Few technicians are required to do so, he said: in the past two weeks the figures have been from zero to a high of three per day.

When the pandemic’s impact first became felt across Long Island last month, PSEG instituted a policy that required technicians to ask customers three levels of questions before entering a home. They would put on higher levels of safety gear depending on whether a customer had been in contact with a COVID-19 patient, or tested positive for the virus.

The company, which operates the electric grid under a contract to LIPA, said it has also suspended all energy efficiency work during the pandemic, including by PSEG contractors, until further notice.

PSEG is working with LIPA on future plans to help customers, residential and businesses catch up with their electric bills once the economic turmoil caused by the business shutdowns, said Eichhorn. Electric shut-offs for nonpayment have already been suspended, in line with a state Public Service Commission order.

Around half of the PSEG workforce, and its local contractors, are working from home, Eichhorn said, while the remaining 1,500 are working in the field using social distancing protocols. Calls to the company’s telephone lines have been low and response times have vastly improved, he said, to about a second. The company is working with a cloth manufacturer in New York City to make masks for all employees in line with new federal guidelines.

PSEG has seen an employee infection rate that is significantly below the 1 %COVID-19 infection rate of the general population, Eichhorn said. That handful of positive cases have resulted in no fatalities, and some have returned to work, he said.