As the 2022 Atlantic hurricane season entered its final month, utilities in the U.S. Southeast may have been tempted to exhale.
Then came Hurricane Nicole.
The Category 1 storm made landfall in Florida last week as a rare November hurricane, following September’s Hurricane Ian. Both knocked out power to swaths of customers in Florida, and both provided a real-world test of grid improvements.
Utilities are learning how to get lights back on faster — and how to keep them from going off — in a world challenged by climate change. After Ian struck as a powerful Category 4 hurricane, over 44,000 workers from 33 states restored electricity to more than 2 million homes and businesses in less than a week. Still, experts and executives say more work will be needed year after year.
“This is a march,” Eric Silagy, the CEO of Florida Power & Light Co., told reporters recently. “It’s not a sprint.”
Florida is known for its pristine beaches and vibrant coastal life, which attract people of all ages but especially retirees. That means much of the state’s population depends upon electricity to keep medicines refrigerated and elevators running. As climate change makes hurricanes bigger and stronger, Gulf and Atlantic Coast states may be taking cues from Florida on how it readies itself for extreme storms.
The Florida Legislature has mandated that FPL and the state’s other investor-owned electric companies ramp up their grid-hardening efforts. But how much is too much for residents? What should utilities be planning for, and what are the limits of what they can do?
“You talk about 2 feet of rain coming down; there’s no infrastructure system on the planet that can handle that,” said Ted Kury, director of Energy Studies for the Public Utility Research Center at the University of Florida, in reference to Ian-like storms.
One thing is clear: Officials need to be thinking far beyond power lines to protect the electricity system.
Some of the residents with the longest wait for power after Ian live in condos that line Florida’s coastline. Ian’s storm surge literally ripped off doors to large rooms where the electricity flowed in from the street, according FPL’s Silagy.
“That equipment was submerged in salt water, and in many cases, those rooms are full of sand and debris,” Silagy said during an October news conference. That’s a recipe for disaster if FPL were to try to restore power without making sure a particular building was stable.
This year’s Atlantic hurricane season will end Nov. 30. Here are four lingering questions that could shape the debate over hurricanes and electricity for years to come:
How much does grid hardening work?
As Ian beared down on Florida, Silagy told reporters he was prepared to rebuild parts of the grid.
That didn’t happen. There were power outages and damage to FPL’s system, but a sweeping rebuild was unnecessary.
Despite the hurricane’s catastrophic storm surge and near-Category 5 winds, the work that FPL has done in recent years to make its power grid more resilient paid off, the company said. Even though a massive restoration of power was required, there was no structural damage to power plants, substations and transmission infrastructure — the basic backbone of the electrical network.
“I’m very pleased that we didn’t lose a single transmission structure,” Silagy said last month.
Switching to concrete poles, putting power lines underground and clearing trees away from power lines on a more aggressive schedule all played a role in either keeping the lights on or speeding up the process to restore electricity.
Florida’s electric companies have been doing targeted storm hardening of the grid since back-to-back hurricanes in 2004 led to widespread power outages and exposed grid weaknesses. Hurricane Wilma, a powerful storm in 2005, was the breaking point for many lawmakers, who told utilities to get to work on a power system that could withstand hurricane-force winds.
Then Hurricane Irma arrived. The Category 4 storm hit Florida in 2017 and caused catastrophic damage across the state.
Again, the Florida Legislature called for more action, specifically when it came to putting more of a utility’s distribution system underground (Energywire, April 17, 2019).
“Every time we have a storm, you see all the poles down. Why are we putting up the same poles? Why don’t we do a better job at hardening the system?” asked Republican Florida state Sen. Joe Gruters at a committee hearing in 2019.
A 2019 Florida law directs the state’s three regulated investor-owned electric companies to file annual storm plans that focus on areas where the grid is least reliable and make cost-recovery requests.
This gives electric companies assurance they can recoup costs annually for burying power lines, aggressively clearing vegetation and replacing power poles to protect the grid.
In documents filed earlier this year with the Florida Public Service Commission, the state’s electric companies said they would expand the use of advanced grid software, work with counties to clear roads more quickly so utility trucks can get to the heaviest damaged areas, and reinforce substations and transmission infrastructure.
Duke Energy Florida said its self-healing technology — technology that can automatically detect an outage and either reroute electricity on the grid so that the power can be restored more quickly or, in some cases, avoid the lights going out — restored more than 160,000 outages after Ian, saving 3.3 million hours or 200 million minutes of time from lost outages overall, the company said last month.
“Hurricane Ian is a strong reminder of the importance of grid hardening and storm preparedness to help keep the lights on for our customers,” said Melissa Seixas, Duke Energy Florida state president, in a statement.
Is the clean energy transition helping?
Clean energy advocates have long criticized electric companies for clinging to large fossil fuel power plants, arguing that a combination of renewable energy and battery storage distributed throughout the grid would make it more resilient.
But the degree to which that’s true depends on multiple factors.
Babcock Ranch, a master planned community in Southwest Florida, holds some lessons. It is powered by a combination of solar, battery storage and a nearby natural gas power plant. Residents started moving into the self-proclaimed “first solar-powered town” in America in 2018. This was after landowners donated 430 acres of land to FPL to build a solar farm.
But it wasn’t the two large-scale solar arrays that kept the lights on during Ian, nor was it the battery storage nearby, an FPL spokesperson said. Indeed, neither of the solar arrays, which serve FPL’s entire power grid, operated during Ian because of cloud cover.
Instead, the natural gas plant kept operating, which meant FPL didn’t have to use the battery.
The lights also stayed on because Babcock Ranch’s entire infrastructure was built to withstand flooding and high winds, and FPL either had hardened the aboveground structures or buried the power lines that serve the area, FPL spokesperson Chris McGrath said in an email to E&E News.
“Therefore, the lights stayed on at Babcock Ranch not because of solar or batteries, but rather because the FPL energy grid serving the community is storm-hardened and/or underground,” McGrath said.
However, Ian also showcased the resilience of solar in many cases and demonstrated that microgrids can be an important tool to keep power on.
In a news conference, Silagy told reporters that very few of the utility’s large-scale solar projects, scattered across its territory, were damaged in the storm.
FPL has 50 utility-scale solar plants in Florida. Each covers roughly 500 to 600 acres of land and has roughly 300 panels, Silagy said. Of that, 35 were in Ian’s path.
Less than 1 percent of the panels were damaged, or a couple of thousand of the 35 million-plus of FPL’s panels, he said.
“It is a real testament to the … engineering, design and construction of these facilities that our solar panels are up and running today, producing electricity, serving customers today,” Silagy said during an Oct. 6 news conference.
Tampa Electric Co.’s microgrid pilot project — which serves 37 homes in a nearby subdivision — also performed as it was designed, utility spokesperson Cherie Jacobs said. While that subdivision did lose power during Ian, the homes on the microgrid did not, she said.
Microgrids generate electricity, often from renewables such a solar, and then store it for later use. In this case, the solar panels generated electricity for consumption, and then the batteries distributed it during the storm.
The pilot project “provided the homes with seamless back-up power,” she said.
Ian comes at a time when many of Florida’s electric companies are ramping up clean energy transitions and adding more utility-scale solar and battery storage to their grids. What’s more, some solar advocates are wondering whether a highly anticipated bill targeting rooftop solar will return to the state Legislature next year.
“Time and time again, we continue to see solar success stories even after the most devastating storms. The stories we are hearing from rooftop solar homeowners across the state are a testament to the value of distributed renewable energy,” Erin Hellkamp, spokesperson with the nonprofit Solar United Neighbors, said in a statement.
To be clear, solar panels are able to produce electricity with varying amounts of daylight. Battery storage provides electricity when there is no power from the grid or when the panels temporarily aren’t generating.
“A little bit of cloud cover definitely affects how much power you can harvest from the sun,” said Ben Millar, CEO of Sun Harvest Energy, based in Tampa, and president of the Florida Solar Energy Industries Association.
However, if residents have battery storage, they can take electricity that was already generated from the solar panels and run the battery power when that happens, he said.
“That energy lasts for a while if you’re not running everything on full blast,” Millar said.
Millar said his company’s solar and battery systems worked during Ian.
Ultimately, Ian was a major test for Florida’s renewables. Their resilience could help prevent lawmakers from passing a bill cutting rooftop solar incentives next year, according to some solar industry supporters.
FPL led the charge in getting state lawmakers to pass such a bill earlier this year, despite widespread opposition.
Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis (R) vetoed the bill, however, saying it didn’t make sense to cut opportunities for Floridians to lower their power bills amid rising energy prices and inflation. The move shocked clean energy boosters and dealt a blow to electric utilities, which have vowed to push for a similar measure again in 2023.
Despite solar’s relative success during Ian, FPL’s position on rooftop solar credits for customers who generate excess power remains the same, McGrath said.
“The vast majority of our customers who don’t have rooftop solar should not be forced to pay tens of millions of dollars more annually to fund bill credits for the very few who do — as Florida law currently mandates,” he said in a statement to E&E News.
FPL also is continuing to find ways to integrate battery storage onto its system, as outlined in a 10-year site plan with the Florida PSC filed in April. The company also has a goal to have 50 gigawatts of battery storage across its service territory by 2045.
Hellkamp disagreed with the utility’s stance on solar.
“Hurricane Ian proved that rooftop solar is essential for building a more resilient and energy independent Florida,” she said in a statement. “Policymakers heading into the next legislative session should consider these solar resiliency stories as part of the plan to help Floridians recover and prepare for the next storm.”
How much should customers pay?
Utility executives typically make one thing clear before any major storm: There is no such thing as a perfect, hurricane-proof power grid.
Even concrete poles can fall victim to a falling oak tree if its roots tear up the infrastructure surrounding it. Major electrical equipment in the basement of high rises along Florida’s southwest coast have sat submerged in salt water and sand, rendering the buildings unsafe to be energized for electricity, Silagy said recently. Flying debris from miles away also can easily tangle in power lines.
What’s more, hurricanes like Irma, Michael, Fiona and Ida are clear examples that storms are changing in size and intensity. Whether a storm is a category 4 or 5 — which is measured by wind speed — doesn’t tell the full story, as hurricanes have started to dump significantly more rain and have storm surges that can flood cities and towns 100 miles inland.
Florida’s electric companies have spent billions of dollars over the last 15 years making the power grid more resilient to extreme weather. Even so, Ian’s wrath caused damage. NextEra Energy Inc., the parent of FPL, said during a recent earnings call that it will seek to recover from customers more than $1 billion in costs related to Ian.
Some Florida utility regulators have questioned how much is too much when it comes to grid hardening, especially when customers pay for that work.
“Right now, we’re chasing the last .002 or [.003] percent of customers [who] are left out there,” Florida Public Service Commissioner Gary Clark, who was appointed by former Gov. Rick Scott (R), said last month. “It’s an expensive push.”
This is the first year that the PSC formally vetted storm-hardening plans from the state’s electric companies under a new process established by the state Legislature in 2019. The PSC staff and utilities have struck settlement deals in the past.
The investor-owned utilities submitted 10-year storm-hardening plans this year, and the PSC staff evaluated whether those actions made sense from a cost and public-safety perspective.
Even as the PSC has acknowledged Ian’s destruction, not every regulator agrees that this is the right time to sign off on every aspect of the companies’ storm-hardening plans. In the wake of rising fuel costs and requests from the state’s electric companies to recoup the costs of restoring electricity after Ian, some regulators say the focus should be on keeping utility bills steady, not increasing them.
“I have serious concerns about where our bills and where our residential rates are going, and we need to be taking everything into consideration to mitigate these costs,” Clark said during a meeting last month, adding that he was torn on how to handle the issue.
To be sure, any major improvements to the grid can be a windfall for electric companies, which can recoup the costs of their capital expenses plus earn a profit. In the case of grid hardening to prepare for natural disasters, electric companies are required to make clear that the work they would be doing is for hurricane resiliency only, according to PSC rules.
Because of those rules, if the PSC staff determines that the resiliency work would do more to help day-to-day power flow, the staff typically recommends that regulators not approve those capital costs in the storm plans.
One example of this is what’s called “looping in” a transmission line, which adds a redundant line in case one fails during a storm. Some say costs for that kind of project should not be passed on to customers because the line would be used most of the time in nonstorm situations.
“This is a tough one,” said Tom Ballinger, director of the PSC’s engineering division, during an October meeting. “We recognize that looping improves reliability, but we saw it more as a day to day and something that utilities do.”
That nuance aside, questions over how far to take grid resiliency will continue as long as more intense storms continue. Electric companies have proof that the work they are doing is paying off, but policymakers are starting to question whether aggressively continuing down those paths makes sense in the name of increasing electricity bills.
“We need to look at total costs and benefits to the utilities and to the utility customers,” said PSC Commissioner Gabriella Passidomo, who was appointed by DeSantis. “These are more discretionary than the fuel clauses and those other costs that are going to be compounding customers in the next few years.”
Why did the recovery go wrong in one Florida county?
As FPL and the state’s other major electric companies issued daily updates on their power restoration progress after Ian, DeSantis put out a call for the Lee County Electric Cooperative Inc. (LCEC) to step up its game.
Ian destroyed parts of Lee County, home of Sanibel Island and Cape Coral, taking out much of the electric cooperative’s grid along with it.
FPL serves parts of the county, but LCEC has the north end, which includes Sanibel and Pine islands, Cape Coral, and North Fort Myers. In a news release Oct. 1, DeSantis compared the electric cooperative’s restoration figures to that of FPL’s, and the numbers were vastly different.
He called on the cooperative to accept help from outside electric companies — a standard practice across the industry — so it could move faster. Indeed, the Florida Electric Cooperatives Association stood ready to help when needed, DeSantis said in his news release.
The electric cooperative may have needed help, but there was a larger problem: the bridges to Sanibel and Pine islands had crumbled and floated away in the Gulf of Mexico. A convoy of utility trucks couldn’t get to the islands to restore power even if it wanted to.
The Florida Electric Cooperatives Association, Duke Energy Florida, FPL and additional crews from across the country begin aiding the cooperative with manpower and supplies, including help to rebuild its transmission and substation infrastructure, DeSantis said in a separate news release five days later.
Duke Energy Florida helped restore power on Pine Island. FPL shared its engineers that have expertise in restoring substations, and offered base camp support for line workers and resources to mitigate supply chain shortages.
Officials from the Florida Electric Cooperatives Association and LCEC did not respond to multiple inquiries from E&E News.
It’s unclear what specifically prompted DeSantis to publicly ask the cooperative to accept mutual aid. A spokesperson for the governor’s office referred E&E News to the original news release that prompted the inquiry, saying that it “speaks for our office.”
It has been a long-standing industry practice for out-of-state electric companies assisting others during a major restoration process to send a bill to the utility that asked for help. Standard procedure is to reimburse the assisting company for its lineworkers’ time and any supplies that were brought in as well.
The National Rural Electric Cooperative Association wrote about the mutual aid associated with Ian. Electric cooperatives from 11 states sent more than 1,300 line technicians and support personnel into the Southeast to help with restoration.
“In tough times like these, the core cooperative principle of cooperation among cooperatives takes on new meaning,” said Randy Shaw, CEO of the Peace River Electric Cooperative, which serves 10 counties in central Florida. “Mutual aid crews are the lifeblood of storm restoration efforts following a major hurricane like Ian.”
After five days of work, almost 97 percent of services were restored, the National Rural Electric Cooperative Association said. Many of the remaining homes were victims of Ian’s flooding or were inaccessible, the group said in the article.
A frustrated DeSantis stood in front of a microphone Oct. 2 and said he wanted Lee County to be the “lineman capital of the world” for the next “however many days,” until the lights were back on.
“I can pick up the cost share, I just want the power back on, so we’ll pay for it, that’s fine,” he said, noting that the state has a record surplus.