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Florida utilities fortifying power grid to resist major storms

UPI Top Stories

With just one named storm so far in the first six weeks of the Atlantic hurricane season, Florida hasn't yet faced any serious weather danger -- but state officials are trying to get ahead of trouble they know will arrive someday soon.

The Florida Public Service Commission approved storm hardening plans this week for the state's five major utilities. The plans cover the entire state through 2021.

The plans detail short-term goals for burying power lines to reduce outages during storms, particularly hurricanes. After Irma in 2017 and Michael last year, Florida lawmakers demanded longer-term plans to withstand strong storms.

A new law signed two weeks ago by Gov. Ron DeSantis allows utilities to collect money from customers each year for storm-hardening projects, like burying lines. Opponents fear the law will lead to extra costs for consumers, but state Rep. Randy Fine said it would ultimately save money by averting excess costs of storm restoration in the future.

"We spend billions of dollars every time the power goes out to get it back on," he said. "Those of you who lived through Irma remember we import hundreds, if not thousands, if not tens of thousands of people to come down here to get our utilities back on. That costs hundreds and hundreds of millions of dollars. To some degree, a lot of that goes away if we do this."

Florida Power & Light Co., one of the state's largest utilities, hopes the new law helps augment its Storm Secure Underground Program, which aims to dramatically expand buried power lines over the next three years. Some of the state's lines already are underground, but critics say not enough are.

"The reason we're moving forward with this pilot [program] is we learned from every storm and we saw how underground lines performed far better during Hurricane Irma than overhead lines," FPL spokesman Bill Orlove said.

FPL said it has invested $4 billion into hardening power lines since 2006 and operates a hybrid system with both underground and overhead power lines in some areas. Orlove said FPL's underground lines performed 83 percent better than traditional lines during Hurricane Irma, and 95 percent better during Hurricane Matthew.

They also perform 50 percent better in storm-free, day-to-day operations, he said.

"[By burying lines] you're removing things ... such as trees and certainly the effects of weather, whether it be lightning or wind blowing debris into our power lines," Orlove said. "That's basically taken off of the table."

Data from the pilot program will help determine how many more lines FPL will bury or "harden" over its entire grid by 2024.

Tuesday, the Public Service Commission voted to leave rates unchanged for FPL customers by recognizing the nearly $1.4 billion spent to restore power interrupted by Irma. To help keep future costs in check, it also approved new technologies to track storm expenses.

"This agreement benefits the public interest. FPL customer bills will not increase to cover Hurricane Irma costs," PSC Chairman Art Graham said. "Customers will also benefit from FPL's new storm cost-tracking app. With closer monitoring, future restoration costs will be reduced."

The agreement averts a PSC hearing to expand the review of FPL storm expenses, officials said.

So far, only one named storm has arrived in the 2019 Atlantic hurricane season -- Subtropical Storm Andrea in May, which remained at sea and never approached the United States. Meteorologists say the second will almost certainly be Tropical Storm Barry, which is gaining strength in the Gulf of Mexico. They said it could become a tropical storm by Friday.

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