Florida electric utility prepares residents for worst-case scenario from Irma

Direct hit could leave parts of the state without power for weeks.

Hurricane Andrew, the most powerful storm in Florida history, struck the state in 1992, causing widespread destruction. Forecasters are predicting Hurricane Irma could be more powerful.  CREDIT: AP Photo
Hurricane Andrew, the most powerful storm in Florida history, struck the state in 1992, causing widespread destruction. Forecasters are predicting Hurricane Irma could be more powerful. CREDIT: AP Photo

With Hurricane Irma expected to make a direct hit on Florida this weekend, the state’s electric utilities are preparing for the worst, with one company warning residents that portions of its electric system could take weeks to rebuild.

Two nuclear power plants have already been shut down, as the category 5 storm, with winds over 156 miles an hour, approaches the state.

“There is no way to hurricane-proof an electric system,” said Florida Power & Light Co. (FPL) President and CEO Eric Silagy. “There may be cases where we have to physically rebuild the power system. In this instance, you could easily be talking about weeks if not longer if Irma’s worst fears are realized.” FPL serves about 5 million customers, mostly in the Miami metro region.

“This is a hurricane unlike anything we’ve seen approaching the continental United States,”Silagy said Friday at a press conference. “This storm, as we’ve all heard, has the potential to eclipse Andrew and we all know what that did to this area.”

AccuWeather said its preliminary estimate of potential economic cost from Hurricane Irma in the United States ranges from $50 billion to $100 billion. “If the eye passes right over Miami, then it will be even more,” Joel Myers, founder and president of AccuWeather, said in a statement Friday. “There will be massive damage in Florida. [It will be] the worst single hurricane to hit Florida since Hurricane Andrew in 1992.”

Hurricane Andrew, the most powerful hurricane ever to hit Florida, left 65 people dead, destroyed more than 63,000 houses, and caused $26.5 billion in damage.

In preparation for Irma, FPL has shut down its two nuclear power plants in south Florida, both of which are located in the path of the storm. Hurricane force winds could reach the sites of the Turkey Point and St. Lucie nuclear plants late Saturday or early Sunday.

“Those two structures are among the strongest in America and arguably in the world, the way they are constructed, particular with the concrete and reinforced steel,” Silagy said of the nuclear plants. The nuclear reactors at the sites are elevated well above sea level to protect against flooding and storm surge. The company also has made improvements to strengthen the units in the wake of the meltdown at the Fukushima-Daiichi nuclear plant in Japan after it was hit by a tsunami in 2011.

In 2004, Florida was slammed by four major storms in a span of four weeks that caused massive damage to the state’s electric grid. Hurricane Charley made landfall on the west coast of Florida in mid-August 2004, filling the streets of Port Charlotte and other coastal Florida communities with power poles, distribution lines, transformers, and other debris. The Category 4 hurricane was followed by Frances, Ivan, and Jeanne, adding to the cumulative misery from the prior storm.

The two-unit Turkey Point nuclear plant, located about 25 miles south of Miami, is owned by Florida Power & Light Co.
 CREDIT: AP Photo/Lynne Sladky
The two-unit Turkey Point nuclear plant, located about 25 miles south of Miami, is owned by Florida Power & Light Co. CREDIT: AP Photo/Lynne Sladky

A year later, Hurricane Wilma made a direct hit on south Florida, causing extensive damage to the state’s power grid.

FPL has spent about $3 billion to harden its system since 2005. The company cleared vegetation from more than 100,000 miles of line, replaced or upgraded more than 95,000 utility poles, added flood monitors and storm-resistant doors to more than 200 substations, and installed 4.6 million smart meters and other devices that give the company immediate notification of outages.

In recent years, FPL has been embroiled in controversy over its policies toward customer-owned solar power. Last year, Florida voters rejected a proposed amendment to the Florida Constitution, supported by FPL, that critics argued would have resulted in discriminatory charges against rooftop solar users and limited the number of homeowners who could lease or purchase solar units.

Given the economic benefits to the company, FPL has preferred to build utility-scale solar facilities on its own. Earlier this year, FPL announced it will have 600 megawatts of solar energy operating in Florida by March 2018.

Duke Energy Florida, the second-largest utility in the state, said it has mobilized about 7,000 lineworkers, tree professionals, damage assessment, and support personnel to respond to outages once Hurricane Irma reaches Florida. The utility serves 1.8 million customers, from the Florida panhandle south to the central part of the state.

According to the Charlotte (N.C.) Business Journal, Lynn Good, CEO of Duke Energy, said her company has the recent experience of last October’s Hurricane Matthew, which did about $200 million worth of damage to Duke’s three utilities in Florida, North Carolina, and South Carolina, to guide the company in its preparation and response to Irma.