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The impact of COVID-19 on the power system – issues for Australia

by: Phil Southwell :  
This article briefly describes some of the lessons to be learned from how the industry has managed the impact of COVID-19.

While Australia has seemed to so far escape the more serious impacts that COVID -19 is having on most of the world, the global impact is expected to continue for some time yet and there are lessons to be learned from how the world has been managing the various power systems during this time.  This paper draws on a number of articles that have recently been published in CIGRE’s Electra magazine, to provide a high level view of the implications for Australia.

While Australia currently has very few community transmissions of the virus, recent breakouts in Victoria, South Australia and now Sydney demonstrate how quickly things can change.   Many countries around the world are still in the grip of  second and third waves of the virus with increasing deaths and massive economic impacts.  While the release of vaccines is expected to have an impact, it may be some time before the situation will improve significantly.  The virus will therefore continue to have an impact on Australia’s external trade and we are still vulnerable to a future outbreak or to the next pandemic.

Nine articles covering the impact of COVID-19 have recently been published in Electra, including one from Australia.  Drawing on these articles, this paper provides a high level overview of the impacts of COVID-19 on the power systems around the world and the implications for Australia.  For a more detailed understanding, I recommend you review the actual articles, which are referenced below.

As a general comment, it seems that power system operators across the world have managed to maintain supplies and emergency procedures have generally proven to be robust. Nevertheless the pandemic has had a significant impact.  Common findings in many regions have been: 

  • Reduced system load (often 20% or more);
  • In some cases, a shift of the summer peak from the afternoon to the evening;
  • Reduced system strength (due to less synchronous generators in operation); and
  • Lower market prices and changing international power exchange patterns 

Some strategies adopted have included: 

  • Use of special strategies to minimise risks to staff
  • Deferral of maintenance
  • Outages of transmission lines (220kV and above) to reduce voltages at low load, with the increased risk offset to some extent by reduced load
  • Reviews of pandemic planning procedures to ensure organisational resilience
  • Use of collective responses across multiple sectors 

Sharing information internationally has also helped to improve systems where shortcomings have been identified.  In addition, reference was made to the very relevant work of WG C4.47 on power system resilience, including actions needed before, during and after to optimise the outcome during extreme events.  This Working Group is nearing completion and a Technical Brochure should be produced soon.  The WG has also produced a reference paper, RP_306_1, “Defining power system resilience” which is free to members and non-members. 

One article (3a) specifically reviewed the changed load profile of the California Bay area as a result of the pandemic and identified the following aspects: 

  • Changing consumer behaviour
  • Changing demand and demand location
  • Significant commercial load reduction and domestic load increase.
  • Significant forecasting challenges 

Another article (3b) looked at what was needed post COVID-19 and identified: 

  • Key actions and projects to help kick start the economy post COVID-19 particularly in relation to carbon reduction.
  • Concerns about supply chain disruptions and the need to mitigate this risk in the long term
  • Proposals to accelerate infrastructure investment to improve resilience
  • The need to improve investment certainty 

Articles 3c and 3e identified concerns about keeping everyone safe and how to reduce the stress of not knowing when the pandemic will be over.  As a result, system outages were limited to critical ones with enhanced PPE.  In one case this caused increased hand injuries from mask fogging until the type of mask was changed. There was also a consideration of whether long term changes to working conditions will be required. A secure supply of PPE was considered critical as was regular reporting and the use of remote working where possible, together with special isolation conditions for key workers.

Article 4a covered many of the issues previously addressed and also highlighted the successful use of remote customer monitoring of product inspection and factory acceptance tests by video link. 

The articles provide a very useful overview of experience to date but we are left with a number of questions that would benefit from further research: 

  • What are the short and long term impacts on loads of reduced economic activity and working from home?
  • Will things go back to how they were or will things change to a permanent shift of working more from home and relocating to regional areas?
  • Will global trade stay as is or shift to less dependence on imports?
  • What more can we do to minimise risk for critical employees?
  • What are the short and long term impacts on maintenance and construction?
  • How effective have crisis management plans been during the pandemic?
  • What do we need to work on for the next pandemic?
  • Will COVID slow down or accelerate the energy transition and investment in decarbonisation? 

Electra has recently been upgraded to a user-friendly digital form.  It is free to members and is also available to non-members for a one month free trial or as a subscription. 

To login,  gain access to the free offer or subscribe- CLICK HERE


Reference articles

  1. Electra 310, June 2020,

    1. System Operations impact of COVID-19: European perspective.

  2. Electra 311, August 2020,

    1. Operational impact of COVID-19 on Australia’s National Energy Market

    2. Rethinking power grid resilience: experiences and lessons from the COVID-19 pandemic.

  3. Electra 312, October 2020,

    1. Load profile of a pandemic: California Bay area counties

    2. ETIP SNET views on post COVID-19 recovery.

    3. CEO COVID-19 Diaries: Impacts on energy supply, grids and people.

    4. How the COVID-19 pandemic contaminated the Brazilian electric system’s operation

    5. Knowledge Sharing: State Grid’s effective response to COVID-19

  4. Electra 313, December 2020,

    1. Impact of COVID-19 to System Operators and Electrical Equipment Manufacturers