FPL spends $623 million on power grid, but can it withstand another Wilma?

Oct 19, 2010

The following article was published in the Sun Sentinel on October 19, 2010: 



Since Hurricane Wilma struck in 2005, Florida Power & Light has trimmed trees along 47,000 miles of powerlines, inspected a half-million utility poles and upgraded equipment near every major hospital. All those improvements and more cost $623 million.

Will it be enough to keep the lights on — or least limit the number of days off — when the next hurricane strikes?

“That’s a hard thing to know,” said Irene White, FPL’s senior director of customer support.

“Do I feel good work has been done? Absolutely,” she said. “But there has to be a test, and that test will come and obviously, we’ll learn from that.”

The improvements have not yet made much of a difference in the number and length of outages — information that is reported to the state’s Public Service Commission.

FPL customers were without power an average of 73 minutes annually from 2006 to 2009, compared with 70 minutes in each of the two years before. The figures don’t include planned outages and outages during major storms. FPL officials said the upgrades are meant to improve performance during a storm, not under normal conditions.

Experts say regulators should evaluate how customers’ money is being spent for storm improvements; is it better spent to prepare or to create a fix-it fund for after a storm? No one is doing that in Florida. The PSC reviews utilities’ storm hardening plans, but focuses on whether they’re reasonable, not how the money is spent.

Regulators plan to take up FPL’s storm preparation plan for 2011 next week. The PSC staff has recommended approving it.

“No data are available to evaluate the effects of hardening efforts on FPL’s infrastructure,” staff members wrote. “FPL is taking proactive steps to improve its system to withstand severe weather events.”

What Wilma did

Hurricane Wilma snapped rotting utility poles and hurled debris into power equipment and lines, leaving 98 percent of FPL’s South Florida customers without electricity for up to 18 days.

Wilma came on the heels of a disasterous 2004 hurricane season, when Frances and Jeanne left their marks on South Florida. Repairs from the two devastating seasons, plus the cost of strengthening the grid against future storms, are costing FPL customers nearly $2.4 billion.

Just fixing the damage is costing customers $1.8 billion. Customers will pay a storm repair surcharge of at least $1 each month through mid-2019.

In 2006, utilities had to start meeting state rules on preparing power lines, transmission towers and overall systems for storms. For example, utilities are required to inspect each power pole every eight years. Utilities are required to report their progress and detailed outage data each year.

FPL has spent about $623 million since mid-2006 to prepare its system for storms, an amount customers have paid in their monthly base rates. The company expects to spend about $174 million more this year.

Progress so far

FPL has more than 1 million utility poles and about 75,000 miles of power lines — enough to circle the globe three times.

Trees along 47,000 miles of power lines have been trimmed. Equipment in 240 key areas, including near every major hospital, has been strengthened to withstand wind gusts of 105 to 145 mph.

Half a million utility poles have been inspected — at a pace of about 500 per weekday — and more than 30,000 poles have been strengthened or replaced. More than 7,600 transmission structures, which carry power from generating plants to substations, have been replaced.

The report card

By the measures reported to state regulators, there are few clear trends in FPL’s performance.

The average number of service-related customer complaints or inquiries from 2006 to 2009 — 97 complaints per 1 million customers — increased only slightly from 96 in 2005, according to FPL data.

Some of the service complaints are not related to reliability, and utility experts say the complaints may be more related to spending on customer service than outages.

It’s not clear whether spending millions to prepare for storms is worthwhile.

“At the end of the day, customers are being required to pay so everyone should know what the utilities think they’re getting value from,” said Frank Felder, director of the Center for Energy, Economic & Environmental Policy at Rutgers.

FPL estimates that for every dollar spent hardening the grid, the company saves 45 cents to 70 cents in costs related to restoring power after storms that happen once every three to five years. But as 2004 and 2005 showed, storms can happen more frequently, and there are other costs to consider, such as those incurred by businesses that have to shut down during outages.

FPL officials say they adjust storm-hardening plans as they get new information. For instance, the company found that poles less than 15 years old all passed inspection, so they scaled back inspections of newer poles. The utility is installing so-called smart-grid technology to help spot and fix problems before they lead to outages.

Customer complaints

Even without hurricanes, FPL customers still have outages. Some are caused by aging systems and weather. Some are beyond the utility’s control, such as cars or construction crews hitting poles, FPL spokeswoman Sarah Marmion wrote in an e-mail.

Joe Roberto, who has a title insurance and real estate business in Fort Lauderdale, said his FPL service has improved after he “threatened, stomped, screamed, called and emailed” the PSC, FPL and local city officials for improvements.

FPL replaced two poles near Roberto’s business, trimmed trees near power lines and checked voltage readings. “It was a year project, constantly following up with the PSC and the regional management of FPL,” he said.

White said FPL takes consumer complaints “very seriously.” “I see every sort of elevated phone call when a customer is unhappy. We follow through and work with them until we get resolution. Sometimes it takes a bit. It’s a big grid, and [problems are not always] easy to diagnose,” she said.

Kathleen and Robert Coyle, retired information technology employees who live in Margate, can’t wait for FPL to replace a transformer near their home. The utility already has installed tracking devices nearby to identify “momentary” outages.

The Coyles have complained to FPL and state regulators that they have had 12 outages since July that lasted less than a minute, one that was eight minutes long and two that left them without power for 90 minutes. Kathleen Coyle said she’s especially concerned because longer outages could strand handicapped residents in her condo complex, which is for people 55 years and older.

White said FPL is working hard to improve the grid as soon as possible, but no utility can be 100 percent storm proof.

“We’re hoping to have a good end to the season … We’re hoping we don’t get anything but if we do, we’ll be ready to respond,” White said.

Find this article at: http://www.sun-sentinel.com/business/fl-fpl-grid-reliability-20101019,0,1375289,full.story