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Smart grid technology helped FPL respond to Hurricane Irma

Steve Rogerson
October 10, 2017

Florida Power & Light (FPL) believes its investment in smart grid technology played a crucial role in restoring power to its 4.4 million customers impacted by Hurricane Irma.
Service was restored to essentially all its customers ten days after the massive storm exited its service territory.
"I cannot thank our customers enough for their patience, support and understanding, particularly those who were without power the longest," said Eric Silagy, president and CEO of FPL. "Hurricane Irma was unprecedented by almost every measure, including its size and scope, destructive power and slow movement. Irma's fierce winds, strong storm surge and flooding knocked out power to more than 4.4 million FPL customers, the largest ever in our history. But, we pulled together and completed the fastest restoration of the largest amount of people by any one utility in US history."
Even before Irma exited FPL's service territory, the energy company had restored approximately one million customers, with two million customers restored by the end of the first full day of restoration. The vast majority of customers had their power back on within a week of Irma's passing, but, as is the case in any major restoration effort of Irma's magnitude, there were some areas where restoration was more difficult and time-consuming.
The powerful storm spawned tornadoes, uprooted large trees, transformed roads into rivers, flooded isolated areas, tore roofs off homes and businesses, created salt contamination that damaged electrical equipment and left millions of Floridians in the dark. FPL assembled and pre-positioned the largest restoration workforce in US history, and then continued to amass an army that at its peak numbered more than 28,000 men and women from 30 states and Canada who worked around the clock to get communities back to normal.
Crews found extensive vegetation problems in the hardest-hit areas, including fallen trees pulling down power lines and dense debris blocking roadways. In some cases, crews spent hours and days removing debris before it was safe for restoration workers to access equipment and begin making repairs. In anticipation of the massive vegetation challenges, FPL brought in twice as many tree trimming crews to support the Irma restoration effort compared with Hurricane Wilma in 2005.
"In the wake of a natural disaster, it was extremely heartening to see Floridians from all parts of the state join as one Florida," said Silagy.
Over the past 11 years, FPL has invested nearly $3bn to make the energy grid smarter, stronger and more storm-resilient, and those investments, he said, were paying off. No hardened transmission structures – the backbone of the system – were lost. All of FPL's substations were up and running within a day following Irma. Hardening helped make the system more resilient and provided for a much faster restoration.
In fact, FPL lost only a fraction of its poles, which today numbers 1.2 million, as compared with Wilma – with early estimates of approximately 2500 downed (0.2 per cent) during Irma as compared with roughly 12,000 during Wilma. And, FPL's smart grid positioned the company to restore hundreds of thousands of customers during the storm without the need to roll trucks.
"Every one of the 35 counties served by FPL, stretching from the Florida-Georgia border to south of Miami and up through Bradenton, was affected," said Silagy. “In fact, 90 per cent of our customers lost power. Irma was a much more expansive and widespread storm than Wilma, yet we restored customers at a much faster pace.”
He said the utility would continue to make improvements and incorporate lessons learned so it was even better prepared for the next hurricane.
“For example,” he said, “we understand that what our customers want to know more than anything else is when will their power be restored. Unfortunately we were not able to accurately and consistently provide the kind of useful and detailed restoration estimates that our customers have come to expect from us during normal operations. We are going to get better at this and we're already working on it."
However, FPL customers may experience outages over the coming weeks and months due to weakened trees and branches that could fall, impacting power lines and electric equipment. In addition, salt contamination along the coastline and significant wind gusts, which may loosen some electrical connections, may lead to increased outages following the storm.
"We are still in the heart of a very active and destructive hurricane season," said Silagy. "Irma, along with Hurricanes Maria and Harvey, are stark reminders that we must remain vigilant and ready to respond no matter what Mother Nature throws our way. Please take time now to ensure you and your family are prepared before the next storm strikes."