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Wisconsin utilities ordered to maintain residential service during health emergency
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Wisconsin utilities ordered to maintain residential service during health emergency

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Wisconsin regulators have ordered the state’s utilities not to disconnect residential service during the ongoing public health emergency.

The Public Service Commission has also ordered gas, electric and water utilities to make “reasonable attempts” to reconnect service to any occupied dwellings that have been disconnected.

As of Friday there were 1,481 customers in the state whose gas and electric services had been disconnected for nonpayment.

Wisconsin’s winter moratorium on gas and electric service disconnection, which would normally expire April 15, has been extended until the crisis has passed.

The announcement comes a day after Gov. Tony Evers declared a public health emergency to beef up the state’s response to an outbreak of the COVID-19 illness.

The Citizens Utility Board, which represents the interests of residential and small-business customers, praised the move, which it said will help Wisconsin residents get through the crisis while following public health guidelines, which seek to limit person-to-person contact.

“There will be ripple effects in economic activity, particularly in the service sector, that could lead Wisconsinites to stay home or employers to schedule folks to work shorter or fewer shifts,” said CUB executive director Tom Content, “and those steps could lead to reduced household income.”

Meanwhile the state’s largest utilities say they are taking steps to slow the spread of the virus, such as limiting personal contacts and visits to critical work areas such as control centers and power plants.

All say they have plans in place to ensure uninterrupted service in the event of widespread workforce disruptions, though none provided specifics.

The Edison Electric Institute, the national trade association for investor-owned utilities, said in some pandemic situations utilities may have to rely on contractors or other outside vendors to maintain service.

“Because of the widespread nature of a pandemic, companies may not be able to depend on the traditional mutual assistance programs that help companies restore service after natural disasters and weather events,” according to an EEI memo on pandemic planning.

"While we are accustomed to preparing for storms and seasonal viruses, such as the flu, we recognize this situation is different and changing quickly," said Cindy Tomlinson, manager of external communications for Alliant Energy.

Tomlinson said the Madison-based utility has postponed all "non-essential" work and taking steps to minimize personal contact, including suspending commercial air travel, limiting in person meetings with third parties and requiring employees to wear gloves and maintain a six-foot distance when entering customers' homes.

Alliant CEO John Larsen sent a letter Friday informing customers of the actions.  

Madison Gas and Electric is encouraging employees to minimize personal contact and to follow federal health guidance, said spokeswoman Kaya Freiman.

“We have plans in place to ensure we can continue to serve our customers and fulfill our responsibility to provide them with safe and reliable service," Freiman said.

We Energies, the state’s largest utility company, is monitoring the spread of the virus, said spokesman Brandon Conway.

“At this point, we have emphasized the need for our field crews to avoid close contact with large groups and with people who are sick,” Conway said. “We’re also asking our managers to restrict all but essential travel and communicate needed information via video conference and teleconference.”

Xcel Energy is working to protect its employees’ health and has plans in place to ensure essential positions are staffed, said spokeswoman Christine Ouellette.

At Dairyland Power Cooperative in La Crosse meetings are being held by phone, conferences have been canceled or rescheduled and facility tours stopped, said spokeswoman Katie Thomson.

Anne Rodriguez, spokeswoman for WPPI, which provides energy to 51 municipal utilities, said the Sun Prairie nonprofit has taken general precautions, such as restricting access to essential areas, limiting personal contact and allowing employees who can to work from home.

Rodriguez said WPPI, which does not operate any of its own power plants, has continuity plans and technology in place to carry out essential business remotely.

The Madison Water Utility is closing its offices to the public starting Monday in a move designed to protect critical employees. Spokeswoman Amy Barrilleaux said the utility has emergency plans in place to ensure water service is not interrupted.

Barrilleaux said some customers have expressed concern about the safety of tap water, but there is no evidence that the virus is a waterborne pathogen. The utility adds chlorine, a disinfectant, to all water pumped through the system.

Falling demand?

Based on what’s happened in Italy, some analysts expect electricity demand to fall as schools and businesses close.

Bloomberg News reports that Italy’s peak demand on Monday, when the government announced nationwide restrictions on movement and gatherings, was down almost 6% from the previous week.

MISO, the organization that operates the bulk electric grid in Wisconsin and much of the Midwest, is monitoring the impacts of school and business closures, said spokeswoman Allison Bermudez.

"We do not anticipate any significant impacts to system operations," Bermudez said.

We Energies and Xcel said they are evaluating the potential for lower demand but said it is too early to predict the impact on revenues.  

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