Cape Coral still in the dark, but Florida’s storm hardened areas are shining

by | Oct 9, 2022

  • Power has been restored to about 98 percent of all customers who lost power during Hurricane Ian
  • Cape Coral, served by Lee County Electric Cooperative (LCEC), is one of the hardest hit areas
  • More than 650 wooden power poles were snapped in Cape Coral, slowing recovery
  • Storm hardened areas with mostly concrete poles, buried power lines and other hardened infrastructure vastly outperformed unhardened areas
  • FPL is sending hundreds of replacement poles and thousands of workers to assist LCEC’s customers in Cape Coral

Just ten days after Hurricane Ian obliterated neighborhoods and knocked out power to nearly 2.7 million customers in Southwest Florida, only about 37,000 are still without power. Roughly 90 percent of those customers are located in Lee County. Most are customers of Lee County Electric Coop (LCEC).

Unsurprisingly, LCEC’s outages are concentrated in Cape Coral, North Fort Myers, and on Sanibel and Captiva Islands, which bore the brunt of Ian’s wrath. In the last 24 hours LCEC, with help from other utilities, has cut the number of those waiting from 50,000 down to 37,000 as of 9am Sunday morning.

But the contrast between the damage and slower repairs to Cape Coral’s power grid and the much faster recovery in Fort Myers Beach, just a few miles south, is notable. While Florida Power and Light (FPL) generates electricity for both communities, LCEC maintains the transmission system (power poles, transformers and wires) in Cape Coral, while FPL handles all services in Fort Myers.

The difference between the two communities appears to be storm hardening investments. While both Fort Myers and Cape Coral relied on a mix of aging wooden poles and newer, storm hardened power poles, a report in Bloomberg News says Cape Coral lost about 650 wooden poles that were snapped in half, but in Fort Myers and other areas that have undergone significant storm hardening, power has been restored much more quickly:

One key reason workers have been able to restore power to more than 2 million homes and businesses in a matter of days is that NextEra (FPL’s parent company) and other large utilities in the state spent about $3 billion on storm protection in 2020 and 2021, including replacing many wooden poles with concrete ones and placing some power lines underground. As a result, Florida Power & Light’s network of high-voltage transmission lines was largely unscathed, despite Ian’s winds.

In fact, not a single FPL transmission tower went down because of Hurricane Ian. By comparison, during Hurricane Wilma in 2005, a Category 3 storm, 100 transmission towers were lost, sparking a push to harden the state’s electric grid. In 2017, Hurricane Irma, a Category 5 storm, came ashore while transmission hardening projects were still underway. Only five transmission structures were destroyed by that storm.

According to Fort Myers Florida Weekly, FPL has made significant investments in Fort Myers, including strengthening a number of main power lines, clearing tree branches and vegetation from 457 miles of power lines, inspecting, strengthening or completely replacing thousands of power poles (including nearly 3,000 in 2019 alone). The company also installed so-called “smart grid” technology, which detects and helps localize specific trouble spots and dispatches crews when and where they are needed.

Since that time, FPL, Duke Energy, Tampa Electric and other state utilities have invested heavily in storm hardening, replacing wooden power poles with thicker, taller concrete poles able to withstand sustained winds of up to 145mph. In addition, FPL and other utilities are also burying neighborhood power lines whenever possible, and inspecting overhead lines for potential interference from vegetation or trees. Through the end of 2021, FPL completed 13 undergrounding projects in Lee County and 25 in Collier County.

Those investments have paid off, and Florida regulators, who oversee the state’s electric utilities, have taken notice. Despite recommendations from some staffers at Florida’s Public Service Commission (PSC) that would have slowed down the state’s storm hardening plans, PSC’s commissioners pressed forward, approving 10-year storm hardening plans submitted by FPL, Duke Energy Florida, Tampa Electric Company (TECO), and Florida Public Utilities Company (FPUC).

Of those, FPL’s service area was hit hardest, yet the company’s electric grid performed exceptionally well. The company says underground distribution lines – those at the neighborhood level – performed five times better than overhead lines in Lee and Charlotte counties and significantly better than those outside the harder hit areas.

With over 99 percent of FPL customer’s power restored, the company is now redirecting its some of its 21,000 deployed workers and material resources to aid Lee County Electric Cooperative. FPL trucks are already transporting hundreds of replacement poles into Cape Coral to help with repairs. To support that massive workforce, the company says it is serving about 67,000 meals per day, and distributing 150,000 pounds of ice for hydration, food cooling, and other needs.


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