Europe's electricity giants are grappling with the demanding challenge of safeguarding staff, keeping the lights on and contributing to the relief effort — all while rolling ahead with their own energy transition plans.

As Europe's utilities, project developers and network operators take stock, early speculation and guesswork on the impact of the coronavirus outbreak are giving way to more informed forecasts and detailed assessments. Some companies, including Ørsted and Total, have established dedicated task forces to deal with the ever-changing circumstances.

The energy sector "won't be as hard-hit as other industries," but it cannot expect to escape the crisis unscathed, said E.ON CEO Johannes Teyssen, as the company announced its full-year results.

"We still expect the crisis to leave its mark on our bottom line,” Teyssen said. “Industrial and commercial customers are consuming noticeably less energy. This will have a temporary impact on our network and sales businesses. There may be delays in our ability to deliver energy infrastructure projects.”

Energy utilities have a special responsibility during the crisis as operators of critical infrastructure, Teyssen said. "We’re Europe’s biggest operator of energy networks. Their reliability and continuous availability are of paramount importance for health care, public order and people everywhere."

EDF to lower nuclear forecast

While the impact on project construction appears to be limited so far in Europe, social distancing and travel restrictions are causing greater concern for operations.

French utility giant EDF said it will downgrade its forecast for nuclear power generation in its home market, without yet putting a figure on it. With staffing levels and operations limited by the country’s stringent restrictions on movement, EDF said it will be forced to revise its intended schedule of maintenance and planned outages.

In the U.K., EDF's controversial Hinkley Point C nuclear project — an already-delayed 4-gigawatt development — has reduced its construction staff by half. In a statement released Tuesday, EDF said more than half the workers on-site would be sent home, leaving 2,000 to complete work already under progress. Those remaining will operate within the confines of safe social distancing. Split shifts, staggered breaks and extra transport buses will be used around the site.

The plant was supposed to be completed in 2023, but after further delays, EDF last year warned that the risk of the completion date slipping as far out as 2026 had grown.

Ørsted unhindered…for now

In contrast, Denmark's Ørsted maintained its financial outlook for 2020 in the face of the COVID-19 outbreak, saying that project construction continues and the availability of its existing wind farms has not been dented by travel restrictions.

But that could change, with Ørsted warning that plant availability could be impacted if it cannot keep “internationally staffed service operation vessels fully manned.” 

One risk that could materialize is the delay of government-backed tendering schemes and workforce shortages at the public bodies that administer them.

“We remain dependent on public authorities to progress the permitting and consenting of awarded projects and development sites, and to progress the development of regulatory frameworks, including tenders and auctions," Ørsted said in a statement issued on Wednesday. "Such processes could be exposed to risk of delays due to travel restrictions, people working from home, and government stakeholders being occupied by crisis management."

Ørsted claims that it is shielded from short- to medium-term price volatility as a result of its hedging strategy. But lower power prices could begin to bite as the pandemic continues and the number of days with negative pricing increases.

Energy firms bolster coronavirus response

European utilities and network operators have taken several key actions to protect their own staff, shield vulnerable consumers and even make direct contributions to the public health response.

Iberdrola is working with hospitals in hard-hit Spain to reinforce their power supply. It is also installing backup generators to help power field hospitals and other temporary facilities.

A spokesperson from Aggreko, a global provider of temporary power, heating and cooling, said the company is already working with a number of clients to facilitate the response to the outbreak.

In Spain and the U.K., exhibition centers that would ordinarily be hosting trade shows and live events are being converted into field hospitals. The ExCel center in London is being converted into NHS Nightingale, which will include 500 beds with oxygen and ventilators. In Madrid, the home of last year’s U.N. climate change negotiations is already in use as a temporary hospital.

As the virus first proliferated in Europe, networks were quick to limit themselves to essential work only. Smart meter installations have been put on pause. The Dutch network operator Liander has asked the public to stay away from any of its engineers conducting work in the field.

In the U.K., National Grid has established extra backup measures for its control room as well as heightened hygiene standards and a ban on visitors.

And in a sign of the changing times, oil companies including BP and Total have offered free fuel and EV charging to emergency services during the crisis.