Most of us first heard about supply chain issues three years ago when the COVID-19 pandemic left us looking at empty store shelves.
Shortages also affected electric utilities. But their attention to supply chains started years before the pandemic, and it continues. For electric utilities, the pandemic amped up the job of keeping the lights on in an industry already adjusting to the rapid rise in renewable energy sources and power lines battered by severe weather.
Publicly owned utilities are among those taking steps to manage both immediate and long-term supply chain constraints, says Stephanie Crawford, regulatory affairs director with the National Rural Electric Cooperative Association.
“This didn’t happen overnight,” she says. “Many of these dynamics started before the pandemic.”
Creating a Supply Chain Task Force
Those dynamics include the fact there’s only one U.S.-based manufacturer of the steel used to make transformers, vital pieces of equipment that help regulate power levels so electricity is safe to use.
That constraint, coupled with a workforce shortage, means transformer manufacturers have not been able to keep pace with a significant increase in demand coming out of the pandemic. Lead times for ordering transformers jumped from one or two months to as long as two years.
Those delays threaten to slow progress on essential work, such as restoring power after a storm or connecting service for new consumers.
It hasn’t been just transformers in short supply, Stephanie says. Utilities also faced delays “for meters, conductors, utility poles, bucket trucks—essentially all the things needed to keep the system running efficiently, including restoration needs and serving new load,” she says.
To reduce those backlogs, last summer the utility industry created a task force to work with the federal government on resolving supply chain slowdowns.
Incentives for U.S. Manufacturing
The task force recommended several actions the federal government could take to help get utilities what they need. Among its suggestions was to provide incentives to encourage domestic manufacturing of steel for transformers.
The task force also identified national trends and policies that could conflict with the utility supply chain:
Worker shortages. The same lack of people to fill jobs in many parts of the economy, from restaurants to hospitals, also affects the making of materials needed by utilities.
Competition for workers. Any community wants its economic development efforts to attract major new employers. But a large new business could take workers away from companies that supply essential utility equipment. The industry task force recommended the government support incentives for utility-related work.
Renewable energy and infrastructure initiatives. Electric vehicles, solar energy and even efforts to expand broadband service can use some of the same materials needed by utilities. The task force recommended the government avoid disadvantaging utility work by favoring other projects.
All these supply chain issues are causing utilities to rethink traditional business practices. Stephanie says the logistics and procurement functions of electric utilities are getting increased attention.
“New strategies are going to be needed to meet the utilities’ needs,” she says. “They’ve not needed to project the demand for transformers five years in the future because you could get a transformer in 60 days. Now, when it’s taking more than a year for the equipment to be available, they’re going to have to look at it through a different lens.”
Utilities have been adapting to dramatic changes, Stephanie says, from weather patterns to sustainable energy. Supply chain management is one of the latest twists.
“Publicly owned utilities are really good at keeping the lights on,” she says. “But these supply chain issues have made that job more difficult. Real investment needs to be made in domestic manufacturing and supply capabilities to make sure all utilities can get the equipment they need.
“This is critical infrastructure, especially as we rely on the electric grid to power everything from transportation to working at home.”