COVID-19 pandemic meeting

Washington Gov. Jay Inslee's March 18 COVID-19 pandemic virtual press briefing.

As the global coronavirus pandemic spreads, Northwest utilities have stepped in to help hard-hit customers, while also stepping back to encourage social distancing.

With the outbreak battering regional and national economies, dozens of utilities have suspended service disconnections, and at least one, Grays Harbor County PUD, has delayed a planned rate increase.

At the same time, the industry has responded to public health officials' calls for social distancing as one of the best ways to slow the spread of the new coronavirus. Utilities have shuttered public offices and spaces, instituted work-from-home policies and taken other steps to encourage social distancing. Public meetings likewise have moved online.

Several utilities have stopped disconnecting service for the time being. These utilities include, but aren't limited to, Avista, Cascade Natural Gas, Clark Public Utilities, Eugene Water and Electric Board, Idaho Power, Jefferson County PUD, NW Natural Gas, NorthWestern Energy, Pacific County PUD, PacifiCorp, Puget Sound Energy, Seattle City Light, Snohomish County PUD and Tacoma Power.

Many have suspended late payment fees, as well. Likewise, many utilities have expanded their bill assistance programs. Utilities also are encouraging cash-strapped customers to call to discuss bill payment and assistance options.

Lewis County PUD is putting $1.2 million toward customer bill relief. The PUD’s commissioners approved the measure at their March 17 meeting.

"Our PUD is a community driven organization," Lewis PUD Commissioner Ben Kostick said in a statement. "We've been tightening our belt and making strategic investments that allow us to offer this relief during a time when our customers need it most."

Grays Harbor PUD commissioners voted to delay a 2 percent rate increase slated to go into effect May 1 until the COVID-19 crisis has subsided.

Washington Gov. Jay Inslee issued a proclamation on March 18 making it easier for investor-owned utilities to use energy bill assistance funds to help customers hurt by the COVID-19 pandemic. The proclamation temporarily suspended statutory restrictions on bill assistance programs through April 17.

Inslee also called on all utilities in Washington to suspend disconnections, and for public-power utility boards and municipal utilities to act to soften the economic blow to customers.

The Oregon PUC on March 17 approved tariff changes allowing Idaho Power and PacifiCorp to waive late payment fees due during the COVID-19 outbreak. Portland General Electric already has the flexibility, according to a OPUC news release. Soon after OPUC approved the changes, Avista, Cascade Natural Gas and NW Natural filed similar requests.

With more and more stores, schools and offices closed across the region, residential power consumption is expected to increase. With that in mind, Chelan County PUD is encouraging customers to call the district’s energy efficiency staff or access online information about energy conservation.

Several utilities are taking steps to isolate employees critical to ensuring reliable service. Jefferson County PUD has siloed line crews from the public and fellow PUD employees, in an effort to ensure they are healthy and available to respond to critical service calls.

NorthWestern Energy has asked employees to notify supervisors of all personal travel plans. The utility also is splitting up work groups by location and shifts, as well as having people work from home to make it harder to spread the virus at work.

A BPA employee currently is under 14-day self-quarantine after being diagnosed with a presumptive case of COVID-19, the agency reported March 13. The person's coworkers are working from home for at least another week, according to Bonneville's website.

Virtual meetings are becoming the norm across the region. State utility regulatory commissions in Idaho, Montana, Oregon and Washington are holding virtual meetings. The Northwest Power and Conservation Council's March meeting was held online as well.

With most public spaces closed, parks, trails and other outdoor spaces offer opportunities for people to get out of their homes. However, they can also facilitate the spread of the new coronavirus.

Some utilities have opted to close campgrounds and other outdoor facilities. Others, such as Chelan PUD, are keeping green spaces open while closing playgrounds and other amenities. Chelan, however, is not taking campground reservations at least through May 17.

Grant PUD has closed its campgrounds for the time being. It is keeping open day-use facilities, such as boat launches. The PUD-operated golf course also remains open, though golf carts and clubs are not available to rent.

Flathead Electric Cooperative suspended its annual meeting, which had been scheduled for March 21. The cooperative usually offers a scholarship drawing for high school seniors who attend the meeting. Rather than forego the tradition, FEC announced eligible students can submit their names online and a drawing will be held March 30 to award four $500 scholarships.

Public hearings on the federal government’s draft EIS on the lower Snake River dams are being held via teleconference, rather than in person. More than 30 people commented during the first meeting, which lasted four hours, on March 17. The teleconference meeting was not without problems, according to news reports. Nonetheless, it allowed for public input at a time when Washington has banned gatherings of more than 50 people.

Franklin County PUD is citing the pandemic to encourage customers to call in their support for maintaining the lower Snake River dams.

"As Washingtonians deal with the coronavirus and the ripple effects it's having on business, education and daily life—reliable power is needed more than ever to deal with the crisis," Franklin PUD spokesman Mike Gonzalez said in a news release.

Contributing Editor

Dan has covered stories from Seattle to Tbilisi; spent time with the AP, Everett Daily Herald and Christian Science Monitor; and was twice a member of a team nominated for a Pulitzer Prize. He and his wife have three young children and live in Seattle.