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This Utility Is Heading Underground to Protect Against Storm Damage

DW Keefer's picture
Journalist Independent Journalist and Analyst

DW Keefer is a Denver-based energy journalist who writes extensively for national and international publications on all forms of electric power generation, utility regulation, business models...

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  • May 3, 2018 4:30 pm GMT

This item is part of the Special Issue - 2018-05 - Customer Care, click here for more

Florida Power & Light Co. told state utility regulators that underground electric utilities worked well during Hurricane Irma, which struck the state in September 2017. The utility also said it had improved, but is still working on, its customer communications systems.

The comments came as FPL took part in a two-day workshop in Tallahassee, intended to review the preparedness and restoration actions of the state’s public utilities during Irma and Hurricane Matthew in 2016.

FPL took 10 days to restore power after Irma, which knocked out power to 90 percent of the utility’s customers.

A multi-billion-dollar smart grid investment and an unprecedented repair effort helped the utilityrestore most service to 4.4 million customers. The utility credited what it said was one of the largest restoration workforces assembled in U.S. history. Some 28,000 workers from 30 states and Canada had the power back on within 10 days.

Tom Ballinger, the commission staff’s director engineering, said efforts to harden the state’s electric grid “have worked” to minimize damage to the system. He said that impediments to power restoration included debris removal and local traffic and fuel issues.

Hardening the Distribution System

Florida’s relatively fast service restoration also was due in part to some $3 billion spent over the past decade on smart meters, smart grid, and infrastructure hardening.

Upgrades to distribution poles, including shorter line spans between poles, helped to harden the FPL system. In addition, nearly 83,000 smart devices—including automated feeder switches and automated lateral switches—enabled the system to detect trouble on a line and reroute power.

Even on a sunny day, if a palm frond brushed against a line, an automated lateral switch would close after detecting a fault on the line. A momentary outage might occur, then the switch would reopen as the fault cleared. Known as “trip savers,” the devices help reduce the number of times crews must travel into the field to reset a switch. During Irma, those devices helped to avoid multiple outages that would have required crews to roll.

What’s more, around 90 percent of new construction in the heavily populated counties of Palm Beach, Broward, and Miami/Dade uses underground utilities. The practice can be expensive, but reduces the threat of outages during wind events such as hurricanes. But underground facilities are no magic bullet, and an outage could be longer during a major flood.

Going Underground

FPL’s Bryan Olnick, president of distribution operations, told regulators at the workshop that the utility’s underground equipment worked so well that its goal is to have the entire distribution system “hardened or placed underground by 2024.” He said that effort will begin with an “undergrounding pilot” program to put certain lateral lines or neighborhood power lines underground in sites throughout the state.

“What we’re proposing over the next several years is several hundred miles of laterals [underground] … and trying to test different construction methods,” Olnick said, according to news reports. He said details would be filed with the regulatory commission in March 2019.

Customer Communications

One commissioner asked about communications issues with customers who complained they didn’t get accurate restoration times or information after Irma.

Olnick said FPL’s “power tracker” website and app failed during Irma because it was overwhelmed with as many as 5 million calls. “Our mobile app system was up and running — except for 10 minutes we had to take it down to reboot — but it was not providing the most accurate information sometimes,” he said.

FPL’s app “works great on a day-to-day basis” but had too much information that customers don’t care about during a storm, he said, so FPL is looking at how to “trim that down during a storm.”

“We’ve completed our initial system improvements,” Olnick told regulators. He said the online and mobile system now has capacity “beyond the volumes we experienced during Hurricane Irma.”

Olnick said that FPL arranged for a West Coast utility to help with customer calls after Irma. “We did reach out to other utilities. That will be a standard practice in the future,” he said.

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peter s. on May 12, 2018

I wonder when hts superconducting cables will be used?

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