Florida Power & Light Co. earlier this month tested the response of more than 3,000 employees to a hypothetical storm with similar characteristics to that of Hurricane Wilma, which struck the state in 2005. The annual storm drill, which included Florida Gov. Rick Scott, leaders in the energy field and local first responders, provided an opportunity to demonstrate that the company is "ready to respond together" with its partners during storm season and return life to normal for millions of Floridians in their greatest time of need.
"Last year, we witnessed firsthand the devastating effects of Mother Nature and how critically important it is to get Florida back on its feet as quickly as possible," said Eric Silagy, president and CEO of FPL. "Hurricane Irma was precedent-setting for our company as we amassed the largest restoration force in U.S. history to get the lights back on for our customers. The benefits of our more than $3 billion investment in our grid over the past decade, along with our trained personnel, were clearly evident as more than 2 million customers had their lights back on within the first full day of our restoration efforts. Our company has a culture of continuous improvement, and with that in mind, we must continue to push ourselves to improve our ability to respond. That's what FPL's storm drill is all about."
The company's investments include hardening or strengthening power poles, inspecting poles for strength and installing smart grid technology, which help make the grid more storm-resilient. These investments sped restoration efforts during Hurricane Irma, one of the most devastating hurricanes to ever affect Florida. Through these investments, the company:
- Restored 50 percent of customers or more than 2 million customers within one day, compared with five days after Hurricane Wilma.
- Helped avoid 546,000 customer interruptions with smart grid switches.
- Replaced less than 4,600 damaged poles, compared with 12,400 after Hurricane Wilma.
- Re-energized all substations in one day, compared with five days after Hurricane Wilma.
While investments in building a stronger and smarter energy grid demonstrated benefits to customers during Hurricane Irma and past storms, FPL reminds its customers that every storm is different, along with the damage that comes with it, and urges them to prepare for the upcoming hurricane season.
"In Florida we are committed to providing every resource we can to Floridians during major storms," said Gov. Scott. "Following Hurricane Irma, we mobilized the largest power restoration effort in our nation's history. I was proud of the work of Florida's utility providers who quickly restored power to our communities. As the upcoming hurricane season approaches, I cannot stress preparedness enough. I encourage every Floridian to plan and prepare for hurricane season."
This weeklong drill is a critical component of FPL's extensive year-round training to ensure employees are ready to respond when their customers need them the most. As part of the exercise, the company worked with other emergency operations centers and played a role in the statewide exercise, called HurrEX.
As part of the exercise, the hypothetical Hurricane Cobalt, which mimicked 1964's Hurricane Isbell and had similarities to Hurricane Wilma, made landfall late on May 2 as a Category 2 storm in Florida's southwest coast and exited the state around West Palm Beach. During the simulated exercise, FPL employees were evaluated on their response and restoration efforts in regards to operations, logistics, communications and customer service, among other areas.
Gov. Scott and representatives from the Florida National Guard observed and, in some cases, participated in the storm simulation at FPL's Command Center in Riviera Beach, Fla.
Drill highlights technology used during last year's storms
During the drill, the company showcased technology that was used during last year's storms. Combined with more storm-resilient infrastructure and a rapid restoration effort, this technology helped prevent outages and aided crews in restoring power to customers faster. Examples included:
- Drones using high-definition cameras and infrared technology surveyed overhead power lines and equipment for damage.
- Mobile applications that put damage information and restoration activity directly in the hands of FPL restoration specialists.
- Automated switches, which helped prevent power outages or isolate an issue to speed restoration efforts.
- The Mobile Command Center and Community Response Vehicles, which allowed staff to direct restoration efforts in the hardest hit areas.
- The company's network of smart meters, which allowed restoration crews to remotely confirm that power was restored before a crew left a neighborhood.
During the drill, the company also set up equipment that would be used at a staging site, which would serve as critical resource hubs to move crews and equipment closer to storm damage. Operating like a forward deployment base, these small cities offer crews a place to rest, eat, refuel and stock up on supplies. FPL activated 29 staging sites during Hurricane Irma.
In addition, FPL showcased robots that can provide assessments at specific company substations. One robot currently located at a substation in Palm Beach Gardens has already proved beneficial by alerting staff to an equipment issue that could have resulted in a power outage affecting at least 3,000 customers.
"We understand hurricanes are devastating forces of nature and power outages will occur; however, the significant investments we've made in recent years have aided FPL in our response to Hurricane Irma and future storms," Silagy said. "We learned from past storms, including Hurricanes Hermine, Matthew, Irma and Maria, and continue to make adjustments to our storm response capabilities and enhancements to the energy grid. This puts us in the best possible position to quickly respond to outages and restore power to our customers."
More than a decade of investments help restore customers' service faster, more efficiently
Since 2006, FPL has invested more than $3 billion to strengthen its energy grid, which has improved reliability in day-to-day operations and during hurricane season, including:
- Hardening more than 860 main power lines serving critical community facilities and services, such as hospitals, 911 centers, and police and fire stations.
- Clearing vegetation – a major cause of power outages – from more than 15,000 miles of power lines each year.
- Inspecting the company's 1.2 million power poles every eight years, and upgrading or replacing those that no longer meet FPL's standards for strength (approximately 150,000 poles inspected annually).
- Installing more than 5 million smart meters and 90,000 intelligent devices to help predict, reduce and prevent power outages, and restore power faster if outages occur.
Coming into this year's storm season, FPL is taking the following actions as results of lessons learned during Hurricane Irma:
Trees, those near power lines and those outside of the company's rights-of-way, were the number one cause of outages in the storm. FPL stands ready to work with its government partners, community leaders and customers to stress the importance of keeping trees and other vegetation away from power lines.
During Hurricane Irma, the company's systems experienced unprecedented customer traffic, which caused website performance problems that affected FPL customers' ability to get information. The company has completed initial system improvements to ensure the capacity of its digital systems can now handle extreme volumes of customer traffic – even beyond the volume experienced during Hurricane Irma.
The investments made to the energy grid since 2006 have shaved days off of the restoration time and prevented thousands of outages, as well as other benefits to customers. The company will continue to make enhancements to the grid, making it stronger, smarter and more storm-resilient.
The company saw how underground power lines performed better than overhead power lines during this storm. During Hurricane Irma, 69 percent of hardened overhead main power lines, 82 percent of non-hardened main power lines and 18 percent of underground main power lines experienced an outage. FPL will be launching a pilot program to determine how the company can cost effectively underground sections of neighborhood power lines to enhance service reliability in good weather and bad.
Soon after crews restored power to customers following Hurricane Irma, a total restoration workforce of 300 employees and more than 500 contractors supported power restoration efforts in Puerto Rico in the aftermath of Hurricane Maria. Before returning to Florida last month, FPL crews restored power to 97 percent of the Puerto Rican citizens in the Bayamon region, just west of San Juan.
"Mutual assistance is a hallmark of our industry and it played a pivotal role throughout the historic 2017 hurricane season, with thousands of workers from across the country and Canada answering the call to help restore power to customers impacted by Hurricanes Harvey, Irma, and Maria," said Tom Kuhn, president of the Edison Electric Institute (EEI). "Many EEI member companies, including FPL, responded to Puerto Rico's call for help after back-to-back hurricanes devastated the island. As we prepare for the next hurricane season, storm drills such as FPL's are a critical part of preparation. These exercises, in addition to the substantial investments made in energy grid hardening, have helped companies restore power more quickly following major storms."