The impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic, also known as Coronavirus, are being felt all over the world, with countries in lockdown, positive diagnoses increasing and major shocks to economies, including Australia’s.
The story is changing rapidly, with new developments each day. Utility is keeping a close eye on these changes and will inform you as they’re happening.
The first cases of the novel coronavirus were identified in Wuhan, China, in late 2019 before other cases outside of China started to be confirmed from January 2020.
On 11 March the World Health Organization (WHO) characterised COVID-19 as a pandemic.
As of 16 March 2020, there have been 298 confirmed cases of COVID-19 in Australia. Of the confirmed cases, five people have died from COVID-19.
On the morning of 16 March, Victoria and the ACT declared states of emergency, with the national and global focus now on slowing the spread of the virus.
As well as the serious health concerns for the community, COVID-19 is causing major disruption to the Australian economy.
Modelling undertaken by KPMG Australia on the impact of COVID-19 on the Australian economy suggests that, in the absence of the Federal Government’s stimulus package, the COVID-19 pandemic would reduce Australia’s GDP in 2020 by about 0.9 percent.
KPMG’s report said these impacts would amount to a hit to Australia’s GDP of more than $17 billion by the end of 2020, with a partial rebound of around $12 billion during the next 12 months.
The report states that the economic damage will continue for some time and in all likelihood will escalate in intensity.
The Federal Government released its Economic Response to the Coronavirus on 12 March 2020, which includes a stimulus package of $17.6 billion of fiscal support measures across the forward estimates period.
How is Australia’s utility sector coping?
So far there has been no huge reported economic hit directly to utilities, but possible impacts include disruptions to supply chains and delays on upcoming projects due to materials and worker shortages.
The Water Services Association of Australia (WSAA) has put out a statement assuring that COVID-19 will have no impact on the quality of drinking water.
WSAA said, “Drinking water in Australia is high quality and is well treated. There is no evidence that drinking water will be affected by the COVID-19 virus or that it is transmitted by drinking water. There is also no evidence that it is transmitted by wastewater systems. Water is an essential service and water utilities are well prepared to manage their response to COVID-19.”
COVID-19 is however having impacts on energy operations, especially renewable projects such as solar and wind turbines – globally and in Australia – due to supply chain disruption. Many critical renewable project components come out of Asia.
PwC has released a report looking at the impact COVID-19 is having on Australia’s solar sector which found that the virus outbreak will impact manufacturing and the supply of key equipment and materials used in the construction of solar energy facilities in Australia.
The report found, “Contractors under Engineering, Procurement and Construction Contracts (EPC Contracts) are currently dealing with the delay or disruption in procurement of the necessary equipment and materials, with PwC aware of some EPC Contractors notifying Project Owners of delays to construction timelines, milestones and completion dates.”
PwC has provided guidance to project owners and other solar industry participants on how they can adopt a measured approach in the face of supply chain disruptions caused by COVID-19. These steps include developing a mitigation plan, assessing contractual options and negotiating to manage risk.
The report states, “The outbreak of COVID-19 in the Hubei province of China is having a significant impact on solar projects worldwide given approximately 63 per cent of all solar modules required by these projects, as well as associated hardware such as inverters and trackers, are supplied by China.”
In Australia, it found that solar projects are experiencing delays in the supply of key equipment, as well as short term price increases.
Queensland power and water businesses step up
In Queensland, publicly-owned power and water businesses have stepped up measures to ensure ongoing power and bulk water supplies. This includes stockpiling coal and gas, distancing key personnel such as control room crew to reduce cross-infection, and assessing scheduled outages for possible rescheduling.
Natural Resources, Mines and Energy Minister, Dr Anthony Lynham, said, “Just as state-owned power and water assets are ready for Queensland’s severe weather events, they are ready for the inevitable impact of coronavirus.
“I can assure Queenslanders that, should the virus spread, and if staff are taken offline, well-rehearsed contingency procedures will ensure ongoing essential services.”
Dr Lynham explained that, “Energex has already split its around-the-clock control room crews to work from four venues rather than one.
“Energex and Ergon have around 100 mobile diesel generators strategically located around the state on standby ready to be transported wherever needed.
“Seqwater and Sunwater have emergency arrangements with local governments and urban water utilities to coordinate their response to any disruption to water supply.
“Alternative power arrangements are in place for water treatment plants, and to transport water crews quickly around the state,” Dr Lynham said.
Measures in place in Western Australia
In Western Australia, Western Power has also revealed a COVID-19 Management Plan to ensure critical and essential services are maintained for the community in the event that staffing levels could be affected during a prolonged period of disruption.
The COVID-19 Management Plan is underpinned by the Business Continuity Plan, which is being amended to include specific operational controls that mitigate risk associated with the COVID-19 issue.
For example, isolating essential teams from each other, and ensuring robust ICT resources and systems to remote access as required.
Western Power said its executive team and subject matter experts are meeting regularly to provide leadership on the business response for network and non-network issues impacted, or potentially impacted, by COVID-19.
It continues to stay in close contact with its suppliers to ensure that procurement and supply chains are maintained and managed around transport and logistics, while responding to any employee pressures brought about by COVID-19 planning.
Wester Power continues to be guided by the information being issued by the WA Department of Health and the Australian Government Department of Health and continues to communicate with the office of the Minister for Energy, the Department of Premier and Cabinet, and relevant state and federal agencies and emergency management committees as required.
Jemena enacts crisis response plans
Companies within the Jemena Group, which comprises Jemena and Zinfra, have also enacted a suite of emergency and crisis response plans designed to protect the health and wellbeing of its people and wider community.
It has dispersed its field crews across multiple depots and sites, separated key personnel from one another, avoiding cross-crew rostering, as well as staggering worker start/finish times. These steps complement broader advice on maintaining hygiene and social distancing and are designed to ensure crew continue to be available to perform critical maintenance work.
Water utilities tackle COVID-19
TasWater is working to ensure it provides customers with ongoing and secure water and sewerage services in the face of the challenges presented by COVID-19.
TasWater Chief Executive, Michael Brewster, said, “We are relying on expert medical and scientific advice and basing all decisions relating to our response to the COVID-19 virus on this.
“I want to reassure the Tasmanian community that there is no evidence that the COVID-19 virus is transmitted by treated water or through the sewerage system.”
Existing water treatment and disinfection processes, including the use of chlorine, are effective in removing viruses and bacteria from water supplies, ensuring that water is safe to drink.
There is no evidence of transmission of the COVID-19 virus via Tasmania’s sewerage systems, with or without sewage treatment, and it is expected TasWater’s current disinfection methods are enough to kill any bacteria or the virus.
TasWater is programming operations to ensure it protects its employees and maintains staff levels to ensure the ongoing process of water and sewage treatment.
“We are also closely monitoring our work crews so staff are available for emergency callouts at all hours,” Mr Brewster said.
“An incident team is in place at TasWater, and it will work with any broader emergency management programs set up by state or federal government authorities.”
“We are also engaging with key state and local government agencies as required.”
Likewise, WaterNSW is taking precautionary arrangements to ensure the wellbeing of its people, to limit the spread of the virus, and to facilitate the continuation of operations.
The arrangements are based on the latest expert medical advice and directions to all NSW Government agencies, departments and State owned Corporations.
WaterNSW has the technology and processes in place to support people working remotely. It has also adopted a roster-style system for those working at larger office locations to ensure its operational, customer and business functions can continue to operate, while minimising the risk of transmission.
WaterNSW is now opting for using teleconferencing tools rather than face-to-face meetings when it comes to visitor access. It has also implemented a travel ban on all employees until further notice.
WaterNSW said it will not proceed with planned external community engagement activities, including community information evenings regarding the new dam projects scheduled for April and May or other project related engagement meetings. It will not be facilitating, organising or attending large group gatherings of more than ten or more people as a risk minimisation strategy.
WaterNSW will continue to monitor the situation and make any adjustments necessary.
In Victoria, the Government has declared a State of Emergency and Melbourne Water will be following guidelines and advice from the Government.
It will continue to deliver its core services of water, sewerage, waterways and drainage management without interruption to ensure it delivers on its vision of Enhancing Life and Liveability. Water will remain safe to drink and use, said the utility.
To assist in limiting the spread of the COVID-19, Melbourne Water is changing the way it works and is enabling staff to work from home and implementing social distancing practices.
This is a rapidly developing story. More to come.