The Lights are Back on and so is the Debate Over how to Keep Them on After the Next Hurricane

by | Oct 17, 2017

In the weeks after Hurricane Irma ripped across the Florida Keys and up the west coast of the state, there has been a lot of discussion about what went wrong and what went right regarding the state’s power grid.

There has been an ample amount of finger-pointing as well.

The city of Coral Gables, known for its lush tree canopy, fined Florida Power & Light for not restoring power fast enough after Irma hit. The city is also planning to sue FPL.

“The idea that no one should file a complaint just means that the same thing will happen again,” City Attorney Craig Leen told the Miami Herald. “We’re doing what government should do, we’re protecting our residents.”

How to ‘harden” the state’s power grid is an issue that is sure to be discussed in the Florida Legislature and on the campaign trail heading into the 2018 election year.

State Sen. Jack Latvala, R-Clearwater, who is seeking the Republican nomination for governor, is challenging the power companies to stop contributing to political candidates and start investing that money in projects to harden their power grids.

“It’s time the utilities stop spending money on political candidates and instead protect the residents of this state,” said Latvala, who claims the state’s largest utility companies have already donated $3.6 million in the 2018 election cycle.

Massive Outages

Hurricane Irma resulted in one of the nation’s largest power outages. All 67 counties in Florida were affected.

At it’s peak, the storm left 6.7 million electric customers without power–the largest single power restoration undertaking in history for a single state.

It took 30,000 utility workers from across the U.S. more than a week to restore electricity to most homes and businesses.

It marked the first test of the state’s 10-year plan to “harden” Florida’s electric grid that was enacted by the Florida Public Service Commission.

The questions now being asked are:  did the plan work and what can be done to harden the system to better withstand another Irma?

10-Year Plan

The active hurricane seasons of 2004 and 2005 saw eight hurricanes affect Florida, including Wilma. Wilma hit South Florida in 2005 causing six million customers to lose power. It was the state’s largest power outage, until Irma.

In 2006, the Legislature passed a bill requiring the Florida Public Service Commission to conduct a review of the power system and establish policies to harden the system to better withstand storms in the future. The PSC was required to report back to the governor, the Senate president and House speaker.

Among the policies created as a result of the review was a requirement that utilities and telephone companies inspect 100% of wooden poles within an eight year cycle. The utilities are to report results annually.

The PSC also required utilities to provide annual hurricane preparedness briefings.

State utility regulators also adopted 10 storm preparedness initiatives that included a three-year cycle for trimming trees near distribution circuits, six-year inspections of transmission structures and the hardening of those structures.

The PSC also adopted rules requiring electric distribution facilities be located in readily accessible and safe locations, mandating that investor owned utilities file storm hardening plans for review every three years, and enacting new rules and tariffs to promote the undergrounding of distribution facilities.

“How did we do?

“How did we do? Cut to the chase,” state Sen. Aaron Bean, chairman of the Committee on Communications, Energy, and Public Utilities, asked PSC officials during a committee meeting last week.

“Did it turn out? Did we get our money’s worth?”

“We don’t know yet,” replied Cayce Hinton, the PSC’s director for industry development and market analysis.

The PSC has opened a docket to explore the damage to the state’s power grid during Irma and determine whether the plan the PSC adopted more than 10 years ago helped during the storm.

The question is also being asked of power companies. How did they do?

Florida Power & Light spent $3 billion over the past decade hardening its grid to be able to withstand 150 mph winds. Still, most FPL customers lost power during Irma. But company officials say they were able to restore power to most customers four times quicker than after Wilma.

“We were able to get the vast majority of people’s lights back on within a few days,”  FPL spokesman Peter Robbins told the Miami Herald last month. “There is no such thing as a hurricane-proof system.”

Underground Lines

Irma has renewed debate regarding the placement of electric lines underground to make them less susceptible to a hurricane’s strong winds. But, there are problems associated with underground systems, namely the cost.

Tallahassee, Florida’s capital city, with its extensive tree canopy is always prone to power outages, even in heavy thunderstorms. A Category 1 storm can wreak havoc on Tallahassee.

More than a 100,000 electric customers lost power when Hurricane Hermine rumbled through town a year ago. The storm renewed debate in Tallahassee over underground utilities, but the pricetag to undertake such a project is steep.

As the Tallahassee Democrat reported two years ago, while a majority of the city’s distribution lines are already underground, there are still more than a thousand miles of lines that run overhead.

City officials say it would cost Tallahassee and it’s taxpayers $2 billion dollars to place all power lines underground. That comes to $1.7 million a mile to convert Tallahassee’s remaining overhead wires to an underground network.

It’s a project the city says would take 50 years to complete and would increase utility bills by 15 percent to 20 percent to pay the costs of the project.

National studies place the cost of placing power lines underground anywhere from $350,000 to $3 million a mile. The cost varies depending on the difficulties of digging underground and the costs of acquiring rights of way.

An underground system does not offer a panacea in future storms.

As the Palm Beach Post reported last month, a report by Quanta Technology conducted for Florida’s electric utilities showed that in general underground electrical systems result in lower storm damage and restoration costs. But, they can be susceptible to flooding and storm surge.

When there is a problem, underground lines can be more difficult to find where the failure is located and the cable must be dug up for repair.

What Next?

State legislators and utility regulators will spend a lot of time in the coming months looking for ways to strengthen Florida’s electric grid and making it less susceptible to hurricanes.

It will likely remain a political issue through next November’s election, which will come at the end of another hurricane season and who knows what kind of season next year will bring.



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