Providing power in a pandemic



During one of the world’s strictest lockdowns, hundreds of companies in the Philippines have shut their doors and millions of people have been staying at home to avoid spreading the SARS-CoV-2 pathogen. To provide them with round-the-clock power, one utility turned to strict safety measures and digital technology.

By Justus Krueger

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For months now, the Philippines has imposed some of the most stringent measures in the world to keep the Covid-19 pandemic at bay. A two-week quarantine, for instance, is being imposed not only on people entering from abroad, but also on everyone who crosses a provincial border within the country. In Manila, the country’s capital and chief port, where schools, offices and public transport have been closed since mid-March, a curfew had been put in place between 10 p.m. and 5 a.m. and only one person at a time per family was allowed outside to purchase basic necessities.


“Three months ago, none of us could conceive of a situation in which we didn’t leave our homes for months at a time,” says Jon Russell, Executive Vice-President and Chief Commercial Officer at First Gen Corporation, during a video interview from his home office in Makati. “Having power makes quarantine life bearable, especially since April and May are the peak summer months in the Philippines.” Providing that essential power during the pandemic, however, has been anything but business as usual. It has required extreme safety measures and the maximization of remote operations management services.

“ Having power makes quarantine life bearable. ”
Jon Russell, Executive Vice-President, First Gen

Keeping power generation ahead of the curve

“As early as February of this year, we saw the potential for disruption and started to make preparations,” says Russell. “First Gen initiated epidemic-pandemic preparedness coordination meetings with Siemens Power Operations, Inc., the operations and maintenance contractor of the Santa Rita, San Lorenzo, and San Gabriel power plants located at the First Gen Clean Energy Complex. We’d already decided to limit meetings with external parties, to restrict travel, to practice social distancing and hygiene measures, and to prepare for work from home.”


First Gen and Siemens have been partners for many years. First Gen, which provides about 20 percent of the power consumed in the Philippines, operates its largest facility in Batangas Bay, some hundred kilometers south of Manila. Built by Siemens AG, the plants in Batangas Bay have a capacity of approximately 2,000 megawatts. From the beginning in 2000, First Gen tasked Siemens with operating and maintaining those facilities on the basis of a full-scale operations and maintenance (O&M) contract – one of the largest and most complex O&M projects within Siemens services.


“On March 6, a Friday, while there were still single-digit cases in the Philippines, everything changed,” says Russell. “We encountered Covid-19 directly as the lives of a number of our employees were touched by it.” On the very next day, Saturday, March 7, First Gen and Siemens Power Operations, Inc. had already formed a multidisciplinary task force to identify and manage mission-critical activities, personnel and resources and to design and implement security protocols before these measures were required by the government.

Remote operations and augmented reality at work

One crucial aspect of these measures is the ability to run operations remotely using digital solutions and augmented reality. “Covid-19 has thrown the whole power industry into the Digital Age,” says Guy Rowse, CEO at Siemens Power Operations, Inc., the company previously set up by Siemens AG for the O&M project in Batangas. “We already had such solutions in place before the pandemic,” says Rowse in a video interview from his living room, “so we were well placed to deal with this.”


Siemens currently has O&M arrangements supplying around 39,000 megawatts in 18 different countries. These O&M contracts are centrally led from the headquarters in Orlando, Florida, for O&M Services in the Americas, and in Erlangen, Germany, for O&M Services in Europe, Africa, the Middle East and Asia. Under the agreement in Batangas, the headquarters in Erlangen is able to remotely operate the power plants and allow additional expertise to be available when on-site teams are limited.


Utilizing augmented reality is a case in point. “Before the pandemic, we’d used augmented reality for training and security purposes,” says Rowse, “but it’s also possible to use it for maintenance work.” Augmented reality is an interactive experience where real-world objects are enhanced with superimposed digital information. “As a result,” says Rowse, “by relying on 3D models, we can do a considerable amount of maintenance work in the back office without being in front of the machine.”

“ Covid-19 has thrown the whole power industry into the Digital Age. ”
Guy Rowse, CEO, Siemens Power Operations, Inc.

Protecting teams on-site

Teams, however, do need to be on-site as well. To protect their health and make sure that power continues to flow as ever, First Gen and Siemens Power Operations, Inc. enacted crisis-proof security protocols at the plants, where teams from both companies are active. “The teams for operations and maintenance take turns in the power plants,” says Rowse. In order to minimize the risk, each team stays locked down on-site 24/7 during a 14-day shift – essentially a two-week lockdown in the plant and the exact length of the quarantine time necessary when crossing provincial borders.


When teams and members interact, there are regulations in place to document each contact. This helps facilitate contact tracing and further reduces the risk for all employees. Naturally, body temperature is also monitored regularly, and people wear personal protective equipment on-site. In the rare event that someone needs to come in from the outside, a delivery for instance, that person must also wear comprehensive protective gear. “Of course, we’ve complied with all Covid-19 measures imposed by regulatory bodies and local government units,” says Russell, “but we’ve gone well beyond statutory measures and implemented more stringent measures for our mission-critical personnel – for example work-from-home and shelter-in-place protocols.”

“A lifeline for battling the pandemic”

“Energy is a lifeline for battling the pandemic,” says Russell. “It ensures essential establishments continue to provide vital health services, and the reliable power we supply lets other industries continue to operate. First Gen’s natural gas-fired plants played a vital role during this difficult period, and we’re proud of the men and women from both First Gen and Siemens Power Operations, Inc. that made this happen – the so-called ‘back-liners’.”


Since the pandemic has had an adverse economic impact on many citizens, the Philippine government decided that those who are seriously affected do not need to pay their electricity bills for the time being, and can pay them off in interest-free installments later – so that for them, too, the lights will stay on. As of June, lockdown rules in Manila have finally begun to ease up and millions are going back to work under a “general community quarantine,” with checkpoints, curfews and restrictions remaining in effect in some districts and in areas that report two or more cases per week.


“The measures we put in place three months ago have evolved and we continue to deal with the hammer and the dance phases of Covid-19. The initial hammer phase may be over, but the dance phase will last for some time,” says Russell, “and we’ll have to be continually watchful, and remain adaptive.” He adds that, “throughout, we have provided full support to the government in ensuring the unimpeded supply of energy. By doing our jobs quietly and effectively we have hopefully given them one less thing to worry about.”

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October 15, 2020

Hong Kong-based journalist Justus Krueger has been reporting on business, science and politics in East and Southeast Asia since 2005. His work has appeared in a variety of publications, including the Financial Times, the Neue Zürcher Zeitung and Der Spiegel.


Combined picture credits: First Gen, Siemens Energy