By: Max Crampton-Thomas
2 min read April 2020 — Duke Energy is among the largest electric power holding companies in the United States. In March, as the COVID-19 pandemic caused a virtual economic shutdown, Duke Energy took its own measures to alleviate the stress for customers, announcing it would not suspend customers’ power during the course of the pandemic. President Catherine Stempien discusses the region’s energy needs during the crisis and the impact from the virus, and its own transition to remote work.
How have both shelter-in-place measures and reduction of business activity impacted the region’s energy needs?
It’s too early to understand the full impact of the coronavirus on our business operations. However, there are a few things that are obvious given the current circumstances. More energy is being consumed by residential customers and less in the commercial spaces – especially hotels and the tourism industry. For our residential customers, keeping the power on is more important than ever. We know business owners are operating from home, employees are working remotely and many are teaching their children at home as well. Even a brief interruption can cause a huge disruption to what some customers may feel is an already stressful situation.
Right now, we are focused on continuing to deliver the reliable power customers and communities need while helping to protect the health and safety of those we serve and our employees.
I am proud of the work our 3,800 Duke Energy Florida employees do to make sure our customers’ lights stay on, our hospitals are powered up and important food supplies stay cooled. Now more than ever, we feel a heightened sense of urgency because our customers and communities are counting on us to deliver the reliable service they expect. That’s why you will see us out in communities, continuing to respond to power outages and completing essential work.
Duke Energy works with local Emergency Operation Centers to develop a critical customer list that includes hospitals, emergency rooms and other medical facilities. We have proactively been checking the feeders – which are the backbone of our system – to be sure these critical lines have reduced risk of an outage impacting the critical facilities that our customers need.
To protect the communities we serve, we’re asking our essential workers in the field or operating power plants to maintain safe distances and use enhanced protective gear. If they need to interact with a customer, they will follow strict CDC guidance, which we are closely monitoring for developments.
We are also implementing worker screening measures (including temperature checks), enforcing social distancing, restricting certain areas of power plants, increasing CDC disinfectant cleanings between and during work shifts, staggering start times, adding physical barriers, placing some workers on-call and having others work remotely, and implementing a no-visitors policy.
Our business continuity plans have contingencies to sequester certain employees at plant sites and other critical facilities, however we are not sequestering employees at this time.
We want our customers to know Duke Energy is working hard 24/7 to deliver this essential service during this critical time.
Duke Energy temporarily suspended disconnections for nonpayment and waived late payment fees effective March 21. How has the community since responded to this initiative?
Many of our customers are facing economic challenges. We want to help relieve the financial burden on our communities. In mid-March, the company stopped service disconnections for unpaid bills and waived returned check and late payments fees for all customers. On April 28, The Florida Public Service Commission approved our plan to significantly reduce customers’ bills for the May 2020 billing cycle by giving the annual fuel savings in a single bill. Traditionally, these fuel savings would be refunded over the following year. A typical residential customer will see a decrease of nearly 21% on May’s bill. Commercial and industrial customers will see significant savings ranging from approximately 20% to 45%.
However, hot weather and additional time at home, can mean more energy consumption and could result in higher bills. We strongly encourage customers to use many of the tools we provide to help them manage their usage and to pay what they can to avoid building up a large balance that may be harder to pay off later. If customers are struggling to pay bills, we have a variety of programs to help, including our Florida Energy Neighbor Fund duke-energy.com/FLNeighbor, or please contact us at duke-energy.com. For those who are fortunate enough to be in a position to give, we would ask you to consider a donation to the Energy Neighbor Fund. The dollars go to agencies that help customers pay any utility bill.
The Duke Energy Foundation also announced $1 million in COVID-19 response and education grants. The company’s $450,000 COVID-19-related grants address immediate social service and hunger relief needs resulting from the virus pandemic. In addition, the Duke Energy Foundation recently granted $550,000 to 22 Florida-based organizations to support energy, engineering and environmental educational initiatives. Given the COVID-19 crisis, the Foundation has also provided each organization with the option to use the funds to address unforeseen operational challenges.
What has the transition to remote work been like for Duke Energy?
Our IT team has taken steps to expand our bandwidth and prepare our technology systems, including adding more remote connections and conference line capacity. Corporate-wide, we have been able to support approximately 18,000 employees working remotely, that includes 90% of our call center staff. We’ve been using new technologies to keep in touch and stay connected.
Scammers target victims year-round but often hit hardest when people are vulnerable. So, we’ve seen an increase in phishing scams, in addition to phone scams targeting our customers. Be aware of scammers, threatening disconnection of service and asking for immediate payment over the phone. Duke Energy never asks for personal information over the phone or demands payment using money orders or gift cards. And remember, Duke Energy has stopped service disconnections for unpaid bills.
We are already evaluating the best way to transition back into our more traditional workplace, but also evaluate what we’ve learned. We do measure, for example, our customer care center call response performance. There have been some areas such as the call center, that have stood out as doing extraordinarily well during these challenging times. We have a lot to evaluate and consider as we move forward. Each situation may be different and require a different response in the future. There will be great lessons learned, both to replicate and improve, that we’ll take away from this response.
How do you see the Florida region emerging from this pandemic?
I am on the Florida Governor’s Re-Open Florida Task Force Industry Working Group Related to Administrative, Education, Information & Technology, Manufacturing, Mining, Utilities and Wholesale. We are working closely with the Governor’s Office to consider the best ways to reopen Florida and its businesses. The task force is focusing on short-, medium- and long-term plans. There are multiple groups made up of local and state elected members, as well as business representatives working on a plan. Our goal is to determine how this will be accomplished with the health and safety of Floridians as the priority.
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