In another of his interviews with key industry CEOs on their response to the Covid-19 crisis, Rod Oram talks with Simon Mackenzie of lines company Vector, who expects permanent changes in where and why people consume electricity even once the lockdown ends

At mid-afternoon on Wednesday, nine hours before New Zealand began its lockdown, electricity consumption in Auckland’s CBD was equivalent to a Sunday’s. Across the city, the industrial load was typical of a Saturday morning. Meanwhile, its suburbs were drawing more power than usual.

“It’ll be interesting to see what those look like after the lockdown,” said Simon Mackenzie, chief executive of Vector, Auckland’s lines company.

“If people stick with some of the ways they’re changing their work, we’ll have to review all our forecast of capital upgrades and investment across the city. And it’ll be the same for roading, telecoms, water and other services.”

Based on the benefits Vector is already deriving from these new remote working practices in its own operations, Mackenzie thinks there will be some significant changes.

“Our people now have a real confidence about our technology for working from home. It will really change people’s minds about video conferencing, for example. We’ll definitely travel a lot less. And some activities baked into the business for years will stop and some new ones will start.”

An early start on anti-virus planning was one of the keys to the confidence. Vector created a Covid-response team a month ago, which largely mirrors its existing crisis management system.

But one crucial difference emerged quickly. As an essential utility, it’s well-prepared for dealing with localised asset failures caused by storms, accidents and other factors. Those need engineering fixes.

“Our mindset had never gone to a public health risk and community contagion before,” says Mackenzie. “Now the risk is to our real assets, our people. If they start falling over, how do we operate? That was one of the hardest things for people to get their heads around.

“If a bad storm caused an [electricity] outage, we’d have to manage how many people we could have out in the field.” Some would need to be kept in reserve in case illness depleted their ranks. “Inevitably some of our repair responses will be slower but we also have an obligation to have continuity of workforce.”

To help ensure such continuity across the business, Vector’s actions included identifying critical and non-critical roles, dividing all elements of the business into two – the blue team and the green team, stopping international and domestic travel and external visits, and beefing up and testing its backup off-site control centres for electricity and its telco fibre networks.

Another priority was to strengthen its cyber security measures, believing utilities might come under more attacks in this time of crisis. Moreover, without appropriate safeguards the big increase in remote working by staff could have made it more vulnerable.

“We had to go fast, go hard to get everything in place. Initially, a lot of people didn’t understand why we were doing it. There were different perspectives about the risks and potential impact of the virus because of the diversity of businesses we’re in – electricity, gas, LPG, telco and metering – and we’re in New Zealand, Australia and some Pacific islands. Now we have one common view.”

Vector also believes it’s well prepared thanks to strong collaboration and sharing of resources across the lines sector around the country.

Now the crisis response is fully operational, Vector’s putting a big effort into the well-being of people working from home. A key aspect is understanding not everyone can be productive for eight hours given varying domestic responsibilities.

Key lessons for Vector so far include:

– Make sure people are planning through the right lens. Is it mainly an engineering issue, for example, or is it a complex people and community issue which needs a diversity of skills and perspectives on it?

– Constantly look ahead; don’t discount any scenario; if it should happen, how would we respond?

– As issues arise, make decisions on them early. “Staff see we moved fast, and we moved early, which has put us in a good position.”

– “We’re seeing quite different profiles emerging on how and where energy is being utilised across the city. We’re already in contact with regulators in Australia and the UK about the impacts they’re seeing, and how that might change who invests in what services in the future.”

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