A CPS energy power line runs through a ranch in rural Bexar County.
A CPS Energy power line. Credit: Bonnie Arbittier / Rivard Report

Only one CPS Energy employee has tested positive for the coronavirus, but officials are preparing plans to ensure the utility keeps the lights on if the pandemic worsens in San Antonio.

One element of those plans is to sequester critical power plant and grid-monitoring employees from their families and the broader community should the virus spread further to utility staff and the community. The isolation program could last from three to eight weeks if initiated.

“We don’t have a triggering algorithm that would tell us … when we would take that step,” said Fred Bonewell, security chief and safety and gas solutions officer. “We hope we don’t have to [take] it.”

Sequestering could be done in phases or all at once, depending on the level and speed of response necessary, Bonewell said. The utility could sequester anywhere from a few dozen workers in a certain service area to about 100 workers who are spread across facilities that handle energy generation as well as local and state grid monitoring.

CPS Energy declined to provide details such as where employees would be sequestered, citing the need for security, but the utility has been speaking with those key employees about the possibilities of implementing its emergency plan, said Frank Almaraz, chief administrative and business development officer.

“We’ve spent a lot of evenings and really early mornings” communicating with those employees, said Almaraz, who estimates they’ve reached out to about 40 so far.

He stopped short of saying sequestered employees would receive hazard pay, but said they would be “compensated and cared for.”

The publicly owned utility provides power for more than 800,000 customers in the area. About 1,100 of its workforce is working from home, another 350 work primarily from home but occasionally need to go into an office, and 1,650 have duties that bring them to a facility or out into the community daily, such as power line maintenance.

CPS Energy started preparing for a crisis like this long before the coronavirus pandemic, Almaraz said. The utility conducted a pandemic strategy meeting in 2017 that laid the groundwork for its current emergency response, he said, so “it wasn’t that difficult to do.”

The energy provider is also part of an “open network with utility peers across the county” to share ideas and best practices, he said. “We have a plan that we’re ready to execute right now but extenuating circumstances” could change the plan.

Part of the plan is to minimize detrimental effects that sequestration can have on employees and their families, said Don Stanton, senior director of gas, compliance, and sustainability who is leading the sequestration plan.

“Some of the risk concerns that were identified [were] ensuring the mental and physical well-being of our employees” and their families, Stanton told the CPS Energy board on Wednesday. “We also saw that we may have individuals who may not be able to participate in sequestration, so we had to address that as well.”

The plan was developed with input from employees who could potentially be sequestered, Stanton said. CPS Energy officials developed protocols for sanitation, screening, housing, meals, laundry, transportation, employee wellness, and communication.

“Out of an abundance of caution, it is the right move,” said Mayor Ron Nirenberg, who sits on the utility’s board in his official capacity. “Power plant employees are a first and last line of defense for every member of the community. The organization is making a prudent decision.”

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While it’s preparing for the worst, CPS Energy also is developing plans for employees to return to work. Those plans include screening personnel for symptoms, checking temperature, wearing face coverings, reducing building occupancy to 25 percent to 50 percent, and physically distancing work stations.

“Because we don’t have a vaccine, [the coronavirus] is going to be a very challenging risk to manage through 2020,” CPS Energy President and CEO Paula Gold-Williams said Wednesday.

Disclosure: CPS Energy is a Rivard Report business member. For a full list of supporters, click here.

Iris Dimmick

Iris Dimmick

Senior reporter Iris Dimmick covers City Hall, politics, development, and more. Contact her at iris@rivardreport.com