Florida's electric utilities are better prepared for the tropical storms and hurricanes that bear down on the state than they ever have been, according to an assessment by the Florida Public Service Commission (PSC).
During the 2016 and 2017 hurricane seasons, the state's utilities were tested by four hurricanes that made landfall. The PSC report, issued earlier this summer, found aggressive storm hardening efforts paid off, with the length of outages in the past two years "reduced markedly" from what Florida experienced in 2004-2005, when mega storms like Katrina and Rita mangled the Gulf Coast.
The report, "Review of Florida's Electric Utility Hurricane Preparedness and Restoration Actions," noted that hardened overhead distribution infrastructure performed better than facilities not brought to storm standards. There were few transmission structure failures in the four landfall storms the past two years at facilities better prepared.
However, PSC’s report acknowledged that despite documentation to the contrary, "some customers" were dissatisfied with the extent of outages and restoration times caused last year by Hurricane Irma. "Rising customer expectations are that resilience and restoration will have to continually improve," the authors noted.
In October 2017, the PSC began its hurricane review process soliciting several data requests from the state's utilities. In early May, regulators held a two-day workshop during which information was presented by the utilities, customers and their representatives, and local governments.
One of the findings that will be tested during this year’s hurricane season, which ends Nov. 1, is that better coordination and communications with the utilities during and after storms is essential. During Irma, the report noted that consumer communication systems were "overwhelmed."
Ahead of the report's release, the PSC directed staff in July to pursue more planning and preparedness data from the state's five power utilities, and to specifically collect data on targeted undergrounding projects at Florida Power & Light Co. and Duke Energy Florida LLC as part of an annual distribution reliability review.
Outside of the PSC's ongoing response to the latest storm review, the regulators also identified several areas where possible legislative action may be required, such as revising vegetation management policies, inspection and hardening of nonelectric utility poles, public education on the placement and trimming of trees on privately owned lands, and better handling of the logistics for mutual aid workers who are sent from other states to help.
In assessing the most recent storms, and the 2004-2005 experience, power outages most recently were primarily the result of falling trees, vegetation and debris from outside the utilities' rights-of-way.