Florida’s grid-hardening investments proactively prepared state for quicker power restoration

Published on November 08, 2022 by Kim Riley

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Billions in dollars of investments made over the years to harden Florida’s electric grid helped the state weather the catastrophic effects of Hurricane Ian better than most other states that have suffered similar extreme storms, experts say. Think Superstorm Sandy in New York and New Jersey and last year’s Hurricane Ida in Louisiana.

“Florida’s grid stood strong and rebounded quickly from historic weather-related disruptions this season in part because of long-term investments made in hardening efforts,” Frank Walker, executive vice president of government and political relations at the Florida Chamber of Commerce told Daily Energy Insider.

“It’s a good thing too, because as other states know all too well, power disruptions are economic disruptions,” said Walker, noting that Florida has an economy larger than Saudi Arabia’s, contributes $1.37 trillion annual Gross State Product, and each day produces an average of $3.7 billion of economic activity. 

“Affordable and reliable power is critical to Florida’s continued growth to be a top 10 global economy by 2030,” Walker said. 

Ronald Brisé, government affairs consultant at the Florida-based Gunster law firm for business, wrote in an email that the Florida grid has consistently improved with each storm season due to lessons learned.

“After hurricane Ian the restoration time was remarkable — 98 percent of the customers that could take electricity had power restored within days of the passing of the storm and not weeks,” he said.

Well-timed, planned investments are inevitably less expensive than the reconstruction process, added Brisé, who currently serves as chair of Gunster’s government affairs and lobbying practice and who previously served as chair of the Florida Public Service Commission.

“Restoration is efficient because the work is staged, typically doesn’t need to bring in significant additional resources, and availability of equipment and materials can be secured at more typical market prices, rather than inflated post-storm prices reacting to demand,” Brisé explained.

From physical structures to communications to effective documentation, grid hardening entails an end-to-end approach that better protects infrastructure and improves levels of service in the event of severe weather, according to Reston, Va.-based Leidos, a Fortune 500 company that has worked on grid planning and other services and solutions with more than 50 investor-owned utilities, over 160 municipals/cooperatives across the country, and a growing number of private developers.  

There is no “one size fits all” solution for grid hardening, Leidos says. It must be customized based on each utility’s specific systems, budgets, and storm risks. Utilities must carefully consider a mix of hardening and resiliency measures that address specific weather events and potential vulnerabilities to successfully create a grid hardening approach, according to the company.

Such an approach might include elevating substations, putting up stronger poles, designing and engineering transmission and distribution protection and controls, undergrounding distribution power lines, modernizing infrastructure, and gaining operational efficiencies through data collection, fusion, and analytics, among many others.

And any investments in storm hardening of infrastructure, as well as vegetation management, can help lower costs for power customers over the long run, Brisé said.

“Investments that avoid or lessen damage caused by storms avoid the more significant, post-storm restoration costs, which, in the interest of time, are sometimes only a temporary fix in order to restore power quickly, said Brisé.

Florida Power & Light Company (FPL) has become an expert on grid hardening as the state’s largest utility, serving approximately 5.8 million accounts, or more than 12 million people.

Having just responded to Hurricane Ian, the company is now bracing for Subtropical Storm Nicole as it approaches Florida, with the National Hurricane Center forecasting that the storm’s landfall as a hurricane along Florida’s East Coast could happen Wednesday evening or early Thursday morning. 

Following Hurricane Ian’s widespread destruction just a few weeks ago, Nicole has the potential to topple storm-weakened trees throughout FPL’s service area, especially in the western and central part of Florida, according to FPL, which said Nicole also may bring heavy rains, storm surge and flooding that could slow access for crews restoring power after the storm.

“We recognize our customers are experiencing storm season fatigue after Hurricane Ian, but it’s important to be vigilant and focused as this storm approaches,” said FPL Chairman and CEO Eric Silagy in a statement released Monday. “Ian saturated soil and weakened trees in many parts of the state, so Nicole could cause trees to topple over and other vegetation and debris to blow into overhead power lines and equipment, which may cause outages. 

“We know our customers are counting on us and we are following our proven plan to be ready to respond safely and as quickly as possible,” Silagy said.

FPL spokesperson Conlan Kennedy explained that for nearly two decades, the company has invested significantly in building a stronger, smarter and more storm-resilient energy grid to withstand ongoing severe weather like Nicole. 

“While no energy grid is hurricane-proof, detailed assessments following Hurricane Ian confirmed the resiliency of FPL’s storm-hardened energy grid,” Kennedy told Daily Energy Insider.

For example, Kennedy said the assessment of FPL’s power generating facilities showed that even given the unprecedented devastation caused by Hurricane Ian, no significant structural damage occurred at any FPL power plant.   

Additionally, regarding FPL’s transmission system, Kennedy said FPL did not lose a single transmission structure during Hurricane Ian, and underground power lines also did well during Ian. 

“FPL is working to systematically underground neighborhood power lines, which are traditionally located in backyards and susceptible to trees and other wind-blown debris,” said Kennedy. “Initial forensics show existing underground neighborhood power lines performed five times better than existing overhead neighborhood power lines in southwest Florida, which took a direct hit from the high-end, Category 4 storm.” 

FPL’s smart grid technology, including the tens of thousands of smart grid devices installed along FPL’s energy grid, also helped the company restore service to customers before it was safe to send crews into the field and helped to avoid more than 400,000 customer outages during Hurricane Ian, Kennedy explained.

In addition to smart grid technology, FPL also continues using drones during hurricane restorations. “During Hurricane Ian, FPL conducted more than 1,900 drone flights, including the debut of FPLAir One, the company’s fixed-wing drone,” said Kennedy.

And with Nicole on her way toward the state, drones are being used as FPL positions its restoration workforce, and has activated its emergency response plan as it urges customers to prepare for power outages as the storm’s large size will likely result in Florida experiencing Nicole’s impact well ahead of landfall.

“The most effective and efficient restoration efforts require communication and collaboration among all of the relevant stakeholders in the planning, implementation and execution phases of dealing with natural disasters,” said Brisé.