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As Hurricane Ian nears, Florida’s grid should benefit from lessons of the past

Hurricane Ian
This GOES-East GeCcolor satellite image taken at 9:56 a.m. EDT on Tuesday, Sept. 27, 2022, and provided by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), shows Hurricane Ian passing over western Cuba. Hurricane Ian tore into western Cuba on Tuesday as a major hurricane, with nothing to stop it from intensifying into a catastrophic Category 4 storm before it hits Florida, where officials ordered 2.5 million people to evacuate before it crashes ashore Wednesday.

As Florida braces for what could be its first major hurricane since Irma in 2017 and Michael in 2018, people watch the approaching storm and worry about how it will affect their lives and the lives of their families. A part of their concern lies with the potential impacts of the storm on the system they rely on for electrical service.

Today more than ever, people rely on the power grid for their lights, health, comfort, telecommunications and — as Florida is a leading state in terms of electric vehicle adoption — even transportation. People have seen this service interrupted in the past, and they rightly ask what the utility, the regulator and the government is doing to make this system more secure.

The fact is, much has been done since those storms to build a more resilient grid. We may soon find out where we stand.

The approaching storm highlights two unfortunate truths about the power system: There is no way to completely insulate the grid from interaction with the environment — and the people eventually pay all of the costs of providing and improving utility service. Given that last point, achieving zero outages is just not feasible given the cost.

The genesis of Florida’s current storm preparation process can be traced back to the storm seasons of 2004 and 2005, when 10 named storms impacted the state, causing $28 billion in property damages. In January 2006, the Florida Public Service Commission (FPSC) conducted a series of workshops with state and local government officials, independent technical experts and representatives of the electric utilities. The purpose of this workshop was to discuss damage to electric utility facilities caused by recent hurricanes and to explore ways of mitigating the effects of future storm damages and customer outages.

In April 2006, the FPSC issued an order requiring each utility to file a plan, and the associated implementation costs, for a storm preparedness program with initiatives that included vegetation management plans, inspection programs for transmission and distribution poles, increased coordination with local governments and collection of detailed outage data.

Before every storm season that followed, the utilities all convened in public sessions at the FPSC to discuss what had been done to harden the grid, how it worked and their plans for future improvements. In this forum, if there was something that Duke Energy could learn from Orlando Utilities Commission or Lee County Electric Cooperative could learn from Florida Power and Light, they had that opportunity. These meetings continued annually, even over the 10-year spell when Florida wasn’t affected by any major hurricanes.

The Florida Legislature refined the storm hardening process further when it established a storm protection clause in 2019. This legislation establishes a separate cost recovery clause for future storm hardening projects approved by the FPSC, instead of the utility recovering those costs through its base rates.

Utilities in Florida have engaged in projects such as refined vegetation management practices, system-wide inspection programs for power poles, smart grid technologies that allow utilities to reroute power to compensate for portions of the system affected by storms and selective undergrounding of power lines through these state initiatives.

This process has also highlighted the difficulties in adopting a proactive approach to storm preparation. It is tempting to question the resources expended to prepare for storms when you go through a prolonged period, as Florida did, without storms. People may question why those resources aren’t being used to address another, more pressing issue.

But transformations of a utility system take time — and during an event, all efforts are focused on damage assessment and storm restoration. The period between storms is the only time we have to address the efforts to make it stronger.

There are costs associated with these efforts, and those costs are eventually borne by the people, and everyone involved in this industry must do their best to ensure that people are receiving fair value for the costs that they bear. These costs manifest through changes in electricity rates or through losses in quality or access to service. It is ultimately up to the regulator and the government to determine how and when they will pay. But a transparent system for assessing strategies for hardening the grid, and ensuring that those strategies are cost-effective, will promote a stronger, sustainable, electricity system.

Theodore J. Kury is the director of energy studies for the Public Utility Research Center in the Warrington College of Business at the University of Florida.

Tags electric grid electric utilities electrical grid Electricity Florida grid resilience Hurricane Ian power companies Power grid Power outages

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