Climate Action and Security of Supply May 2020
Keeping the lights on…
The coronavirus has brought most economic activity to a standstill. That can’t happen to the electricity supply. We discuss how Uniper is keeping the lights on during this time..
We spoke to Frank Plümacher, Executive Vice President for HSSE & Sustainability, about how Uniper is ensuring that its power stations stay online.
When consumers put a plug into a socket, they simply expect there to be electricity. Has corona lessened their faith?
I haven’t sensed any fear of corona-related outages here in Germany. Partly because here and in most other countries corona is seen as a real danger that requires swift and comprehensive countermeasures. The situation would be different if the pandemic was played down and the disease spread more quickly.
If the number of cases spikes again, would Uniper be prepared?
We already had a pandemic-response plan for each of our power stations. The plans have different levels of response depending on the extent of the pandemic. They specify exactly what we do and when. That's why we were able to react quickly. The first step was to not allow any more visitors in our power stations. The second was to separate employees in roles crucial to supply security from other employees and to minimize personal contact—during shift handovers, for example—or to prevent it completely. Employees whose presence at a power station isn’t strictly necessary are working from home.
What about employees who are needed in the power stations?
Some employees, like those who work in the control room, are mission-critical and have to be there. We take care to protect them as much as possible. For example, they don’t interact with other employees at the plant and maintain a distance of at least 1.5 meters between each other in the control room.
Are mission-critical employees tested for the virus? No, we don’t think the tests are reliable enough for that to make sense. Instead, we expect each individual to act responsibly: to inform us when they first notice a symptom, to place themselves in quarantine, and to look out themselves and their colleagues.
Are there corona cases among mission-critical employees? Very few. We’ve been lucky. And we facilitated this luck by responding very early. For instance, back in March we asked employees to work at home. This applies to all employees at our offices and facilities who can do their job from home. Home office arrangements have proven to work surprisingly well.
What do you do in the cases where home office doesn’t work so well? We know that we’re asking a lot of our people. It’s not easy to concentrate with small children running around and needing to be kept busy. Or when family members are together in the same confined space for days on end. That’s why we’ve set up a psychological support hotline. We also provide our home office workers with tips on how to stay fit at home and offer to bring them the computer monitor and chair from their office so that they have a more comfortable work space at home. We’re doing what we can, and our people seem to appreciate it.
Are mission-critical employees isolated to the extent that they have to stay at the power stations all the time? That might be necessary in a severe pandemic or epidemic, and we’re prepared for it. Thankfully, however, it doesn’t look like it will be. The talk these days is more about loosening restrictions rather than tightening them. The next stage of alert in our pandemic plans would be a sort of curfew for mission-critical employees. But even then they wouldn’t be required to stay at the power station at all times.
With Europe in lockdown, does Uniper have less to do? Definitely not. It’s been a demanding time. For example, we’re currently discussing masks. We’d like to give masks to our employees who commute to work using public transport. Obviously, we wouldn’t hoard masks in case they’re needed more urgently elsewhere. Another seemingly banal example is the cafeterias at our headquarters in Düsseldorf and our other offices around the world: what changes will we need to make when our people return from their home office but there’s not yet a corona vaccine?
Oil and natural gas prices have fallen to historic lows. In the post-corona world, will companies and countries take advantage of low prices to use more fossil fuel, which could slow down the transition to a low-carbon future? I hope not. Our objective is for our power generation business in Europe to be carbon-neutral by 2035. We’re going to work hard to get there because that’s what we believe the future will be about: supply security combined with climate neutrality.
We already had a pandemic-response plan for each of our power stations. The plans have different levels of response depending on the extent of the pandemic. They specify exactly what we do and when. That's why we were able to react quickly.
Executive Vice President for HSSE & Sustainability