Utilities Prepare as Hurricane Irma Approaches Florida

Utility workers from across the country have been in Texas in the wake of Hurricane Harvey, and crews are now staging in Florida in preparation for Hurricane Irma as the storm crosses the Caribbean, with officials expecting property damage and power outages from the massive tropical system.

Crews from several areas are converging on the Sunshine State, with some moving from Texas where they’ve been helping in the aftermath of Harvey, which left hundreds of thousands without power in the Houston area. AEP Texas said that as of the morning of September 6, it had restored power to 188,000 customers in its Coastal Bend area, but more than 30,000 customers remained without power and some areas may not be restored until later this week.

Florida officials are no stranger to hurricanes, and Harvey’s devastation is a grim reminder of the effects of extreme weather, along with the importance of efforts to keep the lights on. The state’s power companies have been making preparations over the past week, when Irma formed far out in the Atlantic but had a forecast track that showed it could impact Florida.

FPL on Storm Watch

Florida Power & Light, the state’s largest electric utility, has been on 24/7 storm watch for the past few days. Eric Silagy, CEO and president of the Juno Beach-based utility, told reporters Tuesday “we are taking every possible action to ensure we are ready to respond.” The utility has activated its storm plan, which calls for the utility to secure agreements with out-of-state utilities to provide assistance. FPL serves about 10 million people in Florida.

UPDATE: The utility also late September 6 said it could shut down its four nuclear reactors in Florida, at the St. Lucie nuclear plant on Hutchinson Island north of West Palm Beach, and the Turkey Point nuclear power station on Biscayne Bay south of Miami, as the storm nears as a precautionary measure. A spokesperson said the plants are built to withstand extreme weather; Turkey Point came through Hurricane Andrew in 1992.

“We work with other utilities outside Florida when we believe we need it,” Florida Power & Light spokesman Bill Orlove said Tuesday as utility officials met with media. Orlove said FPL can deploy about 15,000 crew members to the hardest-hit areas after a storm. The utility in May held a week-long “staging site” drill, training more than 1,200 employees to respond to a major hurricane.

Staff members from City Utilities in Springfield, Missouri, gather Sept. 6 for a meeting before taking off to Florida to help potential recovery efforts from Hurricane Irma. Courtesy: City Utilities

Staff members from City Utilities in Springfield, Missouri, gather Sept. 6 for a meeting before taking off to Florida to help potential recovery efforts from Hurricane Irma. Courtesy: City Utilities

Among those headed to Florida is a crew from City Utilities (CU) in Springfield, Missouri, which headed south September 6. CU spokesman Joel Alexander told POWER the utility was sending 12 staff, four line trucks and two pole trucks to the Jacksonville area at the request of Jacksonville Electric Authority (JEA), a utility serving Northeast Florida.

“Our crews left this morning (Sept. 6) and should be in Jacksonville on Friday,” said Alexander. “We’ll stage there and monitor the progress of the hurricane. We’ll see how our efforts go there, and if we need to move somewhere else to help out, we’ll be ready to do that. We’re down there for the long haul.”

A truck from City Utilities in Springfield, Missouri, is loaded with supplies before leaving for Florida on Sept. 6. Courtesy: City Utilities

A truck from City Utilities in Springfield, Missouri, is loaded with supplies before leaving for Florida on Sept. 6. Courtesy: City Utilities

Alexander said CU staff were in Florida just 11 months ago, helping with repairs after Hurricane Matthew in October 2016. He said the Missouri Public Utility Alliance (MPUA) also is sending crew members to the Orlando area for staging in preparation for Irma.

Hurricane Recovery Rate Hike

Florida’s Public Service Commission (PSC) in February of this year approved a $318.5 million hurricane recovery rate hike requested by FPL. The company asked for the money to cover its costs of restoring power after Hurricane Matthew. The company said it also would use the funds to help replenish its storm reserve fund. The rate hike adds $3.36 to a typical monthly residential bill, and is in place for 12 months.

“Despite the fact that last year FPL customers in Central and North Florida were significantly impacted by hurricanes Hermine and Matthew, we estimate that approximately half of the nearly 10 million people we serve … have yet to experience a hurricane, much less a major one, since 2005,” Silagy said. Hurricane Wilma, which also achieved Category 5 status, as has Irma, struck Florida as a Category 3 storm with winds of 120 mph in October 2005.

After Hurricane Sandy struck the Northeast U.S. in 2012, FPL took note of the damage and installed flood monitors in substations prone to flooding. The utility says it will pre-emptively shut off power to keep equipment from being damaged, and to make it easier to restore power after the storm. FPL also now uses drones to look for damage in areas its crews cannot access.

“We’ve learned from every storm and we take these lessons learned to see how we can make improvements because the key is getting the lights back on,” Orlove, the FPL spokesman, told reporters.

State PSC Requires Storm Infrastructure Investment

The Florida PSC has required the state’s utility companies to update their storm plans and invest in “storm-hardened” infrastructure for more than a decade, in the wake of a series of hurricanes and tropical storms that battered the state in 2004-05, including Wilma. FPL says it has spent $3 billion since 2006 to fortify its electric grid, including burying main lines and installing nearly 5 million smart meters and other devices to mitigate power outages.

Duke Energy, which serves about 1.8 million customers in Florida, says it has invested $2.4 billion since 2006 to improve its system in the state, including replacing more than 800,000 wood power poles. Spokesman Ryan Mosier said in a statement: “We have a detailed storm response plan and are prepared to respond when severe weather occurs. Line technicians and support personnel are available throughout our service areas and are ready to respond to outages and emergencies if they occur.”

A spokeswoman for Lee County Electric Cooperative in Southwest Florida said the utility is “proactively planning like we are going to be impacted.” Spokeswoman Karen Ryan told the News-Press in Fort Myers that LCEC contractors in Texas have committed to traveling to Florida to help the recovery from Irma.

—Darrell Proctor is a POWER associate editor (@DarrellProctor1, @POWERmagazine)