Hurricanes routinely batter the Caribbean and the East and Gulf coasts. In 1992, when Hurricane Andrew struck the Bahamas, Florida and Louisiana, residents were left without power for weeks and hundreds of thousands of homes were damaged. With Hurricanes Wilma, Irma and Michael over the next three decades, Florida’s communities have been left with devasting impacts and a sense of urgency to increase their hurricane preparedness.

One approach Florida is taking to boost its resilience to hurricanes is a grid hardening. These proactive measures are intended to minimize the number of residents who lose power, especially when electricity may be the difference between life and death to populations vulnerable to extreme heat.

In June 2019, the Florida Public Service Commission mandated that all public utilities in the state file a transmission and distribution storm protection plan that covers an immediate 10-year planning period, with updated reviews every three years. The plan should cover approaches to reduce restoration costs and outage times associated with extreme weather events, such as hurricanes.

As Florida utilities set out to proactively enhance electricity resilience, they must balance this with the significant, and potentially repeating, costs of restoration work that brings the power back in the aftermath of storms. To strengthen electric utility infrastructure to withstand extreme weather conditions, utilities are promoting the overhead hardening of electrical transmission and distribution facilities, the undergrounding of certain electrical distribution lines, and vegetation management.

A first step for Florida’s utilities is to inspect their assets so they can identify and prioritize areas that need upgrades. This allows utilities to achieve a comprehensive understanding of the state of their assets. Utilities across the state — much like the rest of the country — have aging infrastructure. This may feel like the right place to start; however, utilities should consider other elements as they develop their plan.

For Florida and other coastal states, a key consideration is the geographical location of the electric infrastructure. Coastal communities will require different wind loading factors than inland communities, because as hurricanes move inland, they lose momentum and wind gusts tend to slow. As utilities strive to harden the grid for another 30 years, they must leverage critical climate data on impacts such as wind or sea level rise projections to inform their grid hardening plans.

There may also be priority areas where grid hardening is essential, based on emergency services of vulnerable populations. Access to power can directly impact a community’s economy or the public health of residents. Although undergrounding certain electrical distribution lines can support grid hardening, it’s not always the right option for every community. Undergrounding lines can be a challenge in dense, urban areas, as it requires new permitting and construction that could negatively impact homes or businesses. Overhead line grid upgrades can sometimes be more cost-effective and less time-intensive than undergrounding lines.

Wherever utilities are making improvements, they should always think about long-term growth. Some areas have great potential for community growth, which may require infrastructure that meets future energy demands. Infrastructure upgrades must also seek to accommodate shifts in future energy use or sources, such as an increased number of electric vehicles in a service area or a boost in solar power use. This may be an opportunity to assess generator interconnections as well.

These major, proactive efforts to harden the grid across the state require significant planning and budgeting for long-term benefits. Under the new law, utility companies will be able to request rate hikes upfront on an annual basis to cover the cost of grid hardening, instead of having to recover the money after the work has already been done. These grid hardening efforts will proactively harden and modernize the grid to meet the need for improved resilience and growing energy demands.

 

Engineer-procure-construct (EPC) project delivery has become the go-to for the T&D industry as it tackles a backlog of infrastructure updates.

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Daniel Apone provides substation and electrical distribution services at Burns & McDonnell. He has experience working with utilities on storm hardening and distribution grid modernization.