As the COVID-19 pandemic continues to impact Australia, utilities around the country are taking action to ensure the delivery of essential services and keep their workforce and customers safe.

Below are three case studies of Coronavirus responses from utilities. 

Maintenance continues to keep Tasmanian drinking water safe

TasWater has affirmed that its priority is to provide safe and reliable drinking water and ongoing sewerage services to its customers. 

TasWater CEO, Michael Brewster, said TasWater is continuing with vital maintenance and renewal programs during this time. 

“We have enacted our emergency response plan and taken steps to ensure we keep our staff safe, while we continue to provide reliable water and sewerage services,” Mr Brewster said. 

“We are prioritising maintenance programs to ensure we can continue to supply safe and reliable water and sewerage services to our customers into the future.” 

These works include the state-wide water main renewals program that ensures there is greater water security across Tasmania. 

“By continuing with our maintenance and renewal programs we are providing greater surety of work for our contractors and their employees,” Mr Brewster said. 

“We understand the role TasWater has in supplying the state with essential services, but we also want to contribute to the local economy and to help keep Tasmanians employed.” 

Although these works are part of business as usual, with the increased number of Tasmanians working from home the impacts of occasional outages may be more apparent. 

Customers will be notified when a scheduled outage may occur in their area. 

Maintaining a secure energy supply in Queensland

Powerlink was planning for and responding to the COVID-19 situation as it had been evolving, and had already adopted a range of measures in response to the escalating situation.

With the Federal Government elevating its response on Sunday 22 March, the utility is also stepping up its activities.

Powerlink’s response planning is designed to ensure that it maintains a secure and reliable transmission supply for more than four million Queenslanders.

Its team has put plans in place to ensure essential workers are available to maintain critical operational and business functions and it will respond accordingly if the situation escalates further.

At this stage, Powerlink expressed no immediate concerns about impacts to power supply or the transmission network.

The utility’s oil testing and laboratory services are not impacted as of 24 March. It has implemented appropriate new procedures for staff and adjusted the day-to-day management of the laboratory as required.

Any deliveries made in person are placed on the trolley provided adjacent to the laboratory door. If customers need to speak to a laboratory staff member, they must adhere to social distancing recommendations.  

Powerlink has also implemented restricted visitor access to its sites and postponed certain engagement activities and other work-related events. 

The utility’s focus to date is on prudent avoidance activities to ensure people’s safety and manage any potential impacts to the operation of the transmission network.

Powerlink’s actions are consistent with Australian and Queensland authorities as well as advice from the World Health Organisation (WHO) and Powerlink’s Chief Medical Advisor.

Measures to deliver sewerage services

Barwon Water is working to continue delivering essential water and sewerage services and ensure the health and safety of its community and employees.

The utility said it was taking all necessary steps to ensure the Coronavirus pandemic does not threaten the continuity and quality of services Barwon Water provides.

Some of these steps include:

  • Activating a Pandemic Incident Management Team and business continuity plans
  • Promoting and enforcing good hand hygiene practices to all employees
  • Implementing mandatory social distancing measures

The utility’s water treatment and disinfection facilities are designed to remove or inactivate the most resistant pathogens from the water supply, including viruses like coronavirus (COVID-19).

There is no evidence that COVID-19 is transmissible via wastewater systems. Existing disinfection methods at sewerage treatment plants are expected to be sufficient to inactivate COVID-19.

Baron Water said it would continue to treat sewage to the relevant guidelines and standards to protect public health and the environment. This includes best practices for protecting the occupational health of workers at treatment facilities.

Barwon Water is also reminding customers that toilet paper is the only true flushable. Any other paper product (tissues, wet wipes, napkins, paper towel) must not be flushed and belong in the bin. 

This is a serious issue as sewer pipes can become blocked which can lead to raw sewage spilling out into streets or creeks, or even people’s properties.

As an essential service, the utility often has necessary maintenance to carry out to ensure customers get the water and sewerage services they need and expect.

Barwon Water or Barwon Asset Solutions staff may knock on customers’ doors or approach pedestrians in the street as part of essential work they are undertaking, but the utility said these employees were practicing social distancing and good hand hygiene as advised by state and federal authorities.

The utility has, however, closed its customer counter until further notice, as a precautionary step to enable it to continue to provide essential services. This will help minimise the risk of COVID-19 spreading to staff. Customers can still contact staff via phone or email. 

Barwon Water is also assisting customers that may be financially impacted by COVID-19, and has made payment support options available via phone.

Maintaining reliable energy supply

Origin Energy is taking a series of measures to ensure that those impacted by COVID-19 have access to a reliable energy supply.

Some of these measures include offering payment extensions and supporting the most vulnerable through Origin’s hardship program, such as with tailored payment plans and protection from disconnection.

Staff in critical roles continue to work to keep the power stations, and gas and LPG operations running safely and reliably.

Precautions are also in place to protect the health and safety of Origin’s workforce and the communities in which it operates.

Origin CEO, Frank Calabria, said, “This is an unprecedented situation and we are focused on protecting the health and safety of our people and the communities in which we operate, while maintaining safe and reliable operations.

“At the same time, many Australian households and small businesses are facing considerable economic uncertainty and we understand energy bills can cause further stress at this time, particularly for the more vulnerable members of our community. 

“We will continue to use our hardship program as the primary vehicle through which we support vulnerable customers, such as with tailored payment plans and protection from disconnection. 

“We are also working closely with state governments to help them deliver energy rebates for small businesses and residential customers to help ease the financial burden.

“Origin has responded swiftly in activating business continuity plans in our Integrated Gas and Energy Markets divisions, and to date there has been no material impact to energy supply operations as a result of COVID-19.

“As a provider of an essential service, we plan extensively for these sorts of events and I’m proud of how our teams have responded and coordinated with industry to maintain reliable supply of power, natural gas and LPG to our millions of customers across the country.

“Importantly, we have access to plenty of fuel including natural gas, coal and LPG and we’re looking to minimise any planned maintenance to further mitigate risks to our people and assets. 

“Most of our workforce is now working remotely, and we’ve implemented a range of precautions to protect our people who continue to work in roles critical to maintaining energy supply. 

“These actions include managing shifts and rosters to reduce contact between staff, a range of social distancing measures, restricting visitors to sites and additional health screening. We continue to evolve these protocols in line with the latest advice from the government and health authorities.

“We will keep actively working with federal and state governments and industry on ways we can keep safely operating critical functions such as power stations and gas production facilities through the restrictions, as well as find further ways we can support our customers and the Australian community.”

Collaboration of resources

Minister for Resources, Water and Northern Australia, Keith Pitt, has created a ‘virtual roundtable’ of some of Australia’s biggest resources companies and key industry representative groups to prepare a unified response from the sector to deal with the COVID-19 outbreak.

Mr Pitt said the virtual roundtable discussed issues ranging from ensuring workers’ health and safety to keeping them in jobs and putting the industry in a good position ready for the recovery.

“The health of all Australians will always be the government’s priority in dealing with the Coronavirus, but we must also plan to ensure a continued strong future for this critically important industry,” Mr Pitt said.

“It was very encouraging to see all companies participating in the roundtable committed to working on a unified industry response and some have already set aside funding to take on new workers.

“Despite the impact of the Coronavirus, resources and energy exports are on track to reach nearly $300 billion this financial year, surpassing the previous record by $18 billion.”

The Federal Government committed to working with mining, oil and gas companies to ensure they can continue to operate under changing circumstances during the national response to the Coronavirus.

“It’s critical that resources operations continue and new projects commence as planned wherever possible and we are working with resources companies to ensure they can get workers in and out of regional and remote areas in accordance with health and safety requirements,” Mr Pitt said.

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