Creativity sparks innovative use of state’s energy emergency management tool for coronavirus response
New tool helped ensure cold storage for vials of vaccines during winter power outages
The Washington Department of Commerce, home to the State Energy Office, plays a pivotal role behind the scenes in the state’s response to energy emergencies, such as major power and fuel supply disruptions. During the pandemic, Energy Emergency Management Director Elizabeth King recognized the potential of the Washington Energy Infrastructure Assessment Tool (WEIAT, known as “Wyatt”) to help guide important elements of the state’s coronavirus response.
The tool was originally funded in part by the U.S. Department of Energy which recently highlighted King’s work as a successful example of cross-agency collaboration between DOE and the state.
WEIAT is a collaborative GIS dashboard with data from power and fuel infrastructure, weather radar, road closures, public facilities and many other sources. It’s been crucial in successful response to wildfires, floods, refinery and gasoline supply emergencies and now coronavirus.
King expanded WEIAT to include new data to map community COVID-19 infection rates, track status of utility services, and identify critical-care sites and COVID-19 testing and vaccine distribution locations. The additional data has helped guide pandemic response and economic recovery efforts by Commerce and other state agencies.
One such example was prioritizing COVID vaccine storage locations, where keeping the vials at cold and ultra-cold temperatures was crucial. When a massive January storm caused power outages in several areas, King received a list of the storage locations and compared against outage data. She was able to quickly reach out to the affected utilities and elevate power restoration to emergency status. While utilities typically have priority restoration lists of facilities like hospitals, they don’t necessarily have lists of ad hoc facilities such as the vaccine cold storage locations. Local officials valued the specific information King provided, especially at one facility where emergency backup power failed, and they were able to quickly use the vaccine they had on site.
Washington State Adapts DOE-Funded Tool to Help Manage Coronavirus Response
When Washington state confirmed the first case of COVID-19 in the United States, Energy Emergency Management Director Elizabeth King recognized the heightened threat of power disruptions to critical-care facilities, as well as the need to equip utility workers with adequate personal protective equipment. To address such challenges, King and her team began adding COVID-19 data layers to the state’s Energy Infrastructure Assessment Tool. Officials used the new data to map community infection rates, track the status of utility services, and identify critical-care sites and COVID-19 testing and vaccine distribution locations. The additional data has helped guide pandemic response and economic recovery efforts by the Washington State Department of Commerce and other state agencies.
Supported in part by annual funds from the U.S. Department of Energy’s (DOE) State Energy Program (SEP), the Energy Infrastructure Assessment Tool was developed in the fall of 2018 as part of an Energy Emergency Management Program project to track power outages and energy providers’ operational status (see Figure 1), which would inform the Program’s mitigation strategies for outages and disruptions. The tool provides users with a geographic visualization of regional energy providers, including generation, transmission, and distribution providers in the Pacific Northwest and British Columbia, and allows energy providers to prioritize service calls and restorations at critical care sites and assess the implications of energy generation and distribution disruptions. SEP support for the development of this tool aligns with a key DOE Office of Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy (EERE) goal to decarbonize and strengthen the electrical grid.
In March 2020, Governor Jay Inslee issued a stay-at-home order for Washington state that limited commercial and social activity to essential work. The order designated most of Washington’s energy sector as essential, but the state required enhanced, real-time information on COVID-19 to maintain safe conditions for both workers and the public. The Energy Infrastructure Assessment Tool’s mapping system proved to be invaluable to the energy sector’s pandemic response.
The updated tool provides visualizations of COVID-19 data layers (see Figure 2), including:
- Community infection rates and the operational status of corresponding energy providers’ main office locations and service territories.
- Locations of critical care sites, such as healthcare (both permanent and temporary) and assisted living facilities.
- Vaccine distribution locations, which are updated as new providers are enrolled and large community vaccines locations are added.
- Other temporary critical-infrastructure locations, including drive-up Wi-fi access points.
Figure 1: Energy Infrastructure Assessment Tool Pandemic Operational Status Indicators
Figure 2: Additional COVID-19 Map Layers for the Energy Infrastructure Assessment Tool
The Energy Infrastructure Assessment Tool helped spark important agency collaborations to address the unprecedented challenges posed by COVID-19. “The unique situation we’re facing with COVID-19 as a threat to human health has led to some interesting collaborations,” said Director King. “For example, our work with the Health and Human Services branch in the state emergency operation center pointed out the need for childcare facilities to support essential workers, such as energy providers, while schools are closed. Those same workers ensure essential childcare facilities remain connected to the grid.”
Multi-agency response and collaboration proved crucial as the state responded to a devastating wildfire season and substantial natural gas and power outages that threatened to cripple vaccine distribution and administration efforts. By providing a geographic visualization of regional energy providers’ operational status, the Energy Infrastructure Assessment Tool allowed Director King to share timely information with a variety of stakeholders who used the data to quickly develop and deploy mitigation and response strategies.
The tool will also inform the state’s broad economic recovery efforts. The Energy Emergency Management Program uses the tool to track and anticipate the varying economic impacts of the pandemic on energy providers and the customers they serve. Energy providers with a smaller customer base or located in rural areas suffer more from reduced loads and lost revenue. To address these economic impacts, Director King has implemented an energy economic task force that will coordinate with the Governor’s office and the larger Washington state recovery effort. Using visual data pulled from the tool, the task force will be able to identify the energy providers who could be at a higher risk and provide support to help them maintain reliable energy services for Washington residents and businesses.
The success of the Energy Infrastructure Assessment Tool developed under Director King’s leadership highlights the importance of the partnership between DOE and the Washington State Department of Commerce. The Department of Energy looks forward to leveraging State Energy Program resources to further support the state of Washington in pursuing our shared energy goals and delivering economic growth and clean energy to all Washingtonians.
DOE’s State Energy Program provides funding and technical assistance to states, territories, and the District of Columbia to enhance energy security, advance state-led energy initiatives, and maximize the benefits of decreasing energy waste. The State Energy Program emphasizes the state’s role as the decision maker and administrator for program activities within the state that are tailored to their unique resources, delivery capacity, and energy goals.