There are 1,001 variables involved with restoring power after it's been wiped out by a storm.
Downed power lines, inundated substations, corroded wiring, battered power plants — each new storm brings a unique set of challenges that frantic phone calls to the utility company won't solve. After going without electricity for a full month following Superstorm Sandy, I learned that patience, even when your world has been turned upside-down and you're living out of a duffle bag, can go a long way. (That, plus an ungodly number of IKEA tealights and the knowledge that I was not alone.)
After Hurricane Irma pummeled Florida earlier this week, the state's emergency management agency estimated that upwards of 6 million electricity customers were left without power, plunging more than half of the Sunshine State into darkness. No storm in American history has left as many people in the dark as Hurricane Irma, a monstrous and already record-shattering storm with a name that evokes many a kindly great-grandmother in Boca Raton. (The name Irma, by the way, will likely be retired by the World Meteorological Association along with Harvey just as other storms of particular infamy have been.)
As a small army of utility workers from across the country converges on Florida, many areas will see the lights flicker back on. In places where floodwaters have receded enough and the damage is non-catastrophic, restoration work will get underway, with priority given to hospitals, shelters, water treatment plants, police and fire stations and other vital facilities. Still, millions of Floridians — many of whom temporarily regained power only to lose it again — will remain in the dark.
Officials offer a grim and frustratingly vague prognosis: "What we think we'll see on the west coast is a wholesale rebuild of our electric grid," Robert Gould, vice president and chief communications officer of Florida Power & Light (FPL), relayed to ABC News. "That will take weeks."
The word "weeks," of course, isn't what you want to hear from the vice president of America's third-largest utility company. And although not in the plural, the dreaded "w" word has also been used by officials at Duke Energy, Florida's second-largest utility with 1.8 million customers mostly in the center and north of the state. "We expect significant power outages and restoration in some areas could take a week or longer," Luiz Ordaz, storm director for Duke Energy Florida, explained in a statement. "We will not rest until we get the power back on for everyone."
Floridians, it would seem, are going to need a whole lot of patience in the days ahead.
Lauded utility goes head-to-head with record-shattering storm
So what, if anything, could have been done to prevent such widespread power outages across the nation's most hurricane-vulnerable state?
It would seem that Florida Power & Light was doing everything right.
The utility has invested $3 billion to make its grid "stronger, smarter and more storm resilient" after it incurred significant damage during the 2004 and 2005 hurricane seasons. Some fixes, such as clearing vegetation, strengthening main power lines and replacing wooden power poles with concrete ones, weren't exactly pushing the boundaries of electrical grid innovation. But FPL's development of a smart grid, completed in 2013, was viewed as an industry breakthrough or, as Alexis Madrigal refers to it in the Atlantic, "a coming-of-age" moment for smart grid technology.
FPL's smart grid system is complex and multifaceted. Smart meters installed across the utility's service area send reports via radio waves so that outages can be fixed in a more expedient manner; real-time water monitors alert the utility to potential flood events at over 200 substations vulnerable to storm surge; and automated smart-switching technology helps to keep the juice flowing in a reliable manner.
The system was put to the test last year during hurricanes Hermine and Matthew, and it passed with flying colors. Hermine and Matthew, both deadly storms with economic losses in the hundreds of millions (in the billions for Matthew), produced outages across the state. However, most were short-lived and damage to the utility's electricity infrastructure was minimal. In the battle of smart grid versus a very angry Mother Nature, technology — although battered and bruised — triumphed.
Category 5 Irma, however, was an entirely different beast. Although FPL's grid, to quote Madrigal, was "about the best the country could have brought to the table," it appears that a large swath of it will now have to be rebuilt following Irma and, as such, millions of FPL customers, primarily on Florida's west coast, will remain in the dark.
Per a New York Times map illustrating which Florida counties have the highest and lowest percentage of people living without power in the aftermath of Irma, Collier and Monroe counties, which include Naples and Key West, respectively, were the hardest hit along with several inland countries in the state's middle section and Brevard County, on the east-central coast. About 80 percent or more of people residing in several countries tucked into the northeast corner of the state were also without power as of the morning of Sept. 11. This includes Duval County, which is home to Florida's largest city, Jacksonville.
When robust isn't good enough
As officials with Florida Power & Light and other utilities have pointed out, smart grid technology doesn't necessarily prevent power outages. It does, however, help utilities to identify and shut down problem areas, which limits damage and leads to restoration of power more quickly.
As the Atlantic details, Irma's aftermath extends well beyond downed power lines. It's likely that "pieces of the system's core have been compromised." This is what will take weeks to remedy.
But FPL is quick to point out that despite the severity of the storm and the unprecedented number of power outages it spawned, it could have been even worse if not for smart grid technology, particularly the substation water sensors.
"Frankly those flood monitors saved three or four days of work and millions of dollars worth of equipment that would have had to be replaced rather than simply re-energized," FPL president Eric Silagy explained at a press conference held on Sept. 11, as the downgraded-but-still-potent storm churned northward into Georgia and South Carolina, where there have been significant power outages as well.
While thousands upon thousands of workers begin the arduous process of restoring power and embarking on the aforementioned "wholesale rebuild" of the electric grid, FPL will have the chance to explore what worked and what could be improved. (Speaking from experience, burying power lines isn't necessarily the answer, particularly in areas susceptible to flooding in a state threatened by sea level rise.)
Realistically, there's not much that can be done to dramatically improve FPL's storm-ready, state-of-the-art electrical infrastructure.
But there is something utility consumers — and not just in Florida — can do: Be aware of and make a point of limiting activities that contribute to climate change, which, of course, doesn't "cause" hurricanes but can increase their frequency and worsen their already devastating impacts. When the lights eventually come back on and things settle down, it's time to have that conversation with your family, your community, your elected officials. Everyone from the mayor of Miami to the Pope would agree.