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In the 12 years since the last category 5 hurricane in Florida there have been major advancements in smart power grid technology, these developments will be put to the test in the coming days as Hurricane Irma looms large over the southeastern state.

The ‘sunshine state’ experienced two significant, yet smaller, hurricanes last year that now appear to have been the ideal trials for the category 5 Hurricane Irma that is set to make landfall near Miami on Sunday morning. The difference between categories is much larger than the category numbers might imply; a category 5 hurricane, for example, is expected to do 500 times more damage than a category 1 hurricane.

During the category 1 Hurricane Hermine in September last year, crews from local utility Florida Power & Light Company (FPL) worked safely and quickly to restore service to 100% of its customers within 24 hours of the storm passing. Most of those impacted only experienced an power outage duration of less than three hours. FPL credited investments in smart grid automated switches for the prevention of 25,000 further customer interruptions.

A month later, in October 2016, Hurricane Matthew, a Category 3 hurricane, impacted more than 1.2 million customers across major portions of FPL’s service area. The company’s prompt response to the largest storm affecting Florida in more than a decade was the most effective in company history. The company claims that by strengthening its electric system and leveraging smart grid technology, they were able to restore 99% of customers affected by the end of two full days of restoration following Hurricane Matthew’s exit from its service area.

Smart grid automated switches on FPL’s system prevented approximately 118,000 customer interruptions, and hardened distribution main power lines performed 30% better than non-hardened main power lines. Furthermore, no FPL transmission poles and hardened main power line poles failed due to high winds, and the utility also provided support to neighboring Jacksonville Electric Authority (JEA) to help get life back to normal for the state.

“FPL’s significant investments to make our system stronger, smarter and more resilient, and the unwavering dedication of our team, including our employees and partners, were critical to our performance during Hurricanes Hermine and Matthew,” said Eric Silagy, president and CEO for FPL. “Thanks to our efforts to harden the electric system and leverage advanced smart grid technology, we delivered outstanding results including fewer outages and faster restoration times for our customers.”

In recognition for the performance and recovery of its smart grid, FPL received Edison Electric Institute’s (EEI) “Emergency Recovery” and “Emergency Assistance” awards for its outstanding restoration efforts after Hurricanes Hermine and Matthew, and for assisting neighbor utility JEA in its recovery efforts after the bigger Matthew. This year’s hurricane Irma, however, is orders of magnitude bigger than Matthew – Irma is being called one of the most powerful Atlantic hurricanes ever recorded.

The power grid in Florida, as well as potentially Georgia and the Carolinas, will be put to the test in the coming week as possible 180 mile per hour winds, 15 foot storm surge, and heavy rains are expected. Just two weeks ago Category 4 Hurricane Harvey slammed the Texas Gulf Coast from Corpus Christi to Houston, and at its peak, knocked out power for 300,000 customers on Saturday, according to the Electric Reliability Council of Texas (ERCOT).

While the safety of people in affected areas takes precedence over everything else in these situations, the provision of power is essential in survival and recovery efforts. Smart grid technologies allow for a two-way communication pattern that lets utilities to pinpoint or prevent outages by constantly monitoring intelligent devices and sensors along the route in real time. Most often, any interruptions can be detected and corrected at the utility without the need for a truck to roll out for repairs. And these corrections are made in minutes as opposed to hours.

Thanks to FPL’s smart grid installation of early-warning flood detectors at its substations, the utility was able to turn off power in advance of Hurricane Matthew’s approaching flood, and prevent permanent damage to substations. Also, advanced gear allowed for the automatic reroute of electricity flow around troubled spots and reclosers that re-energize power lines experiencing temporary faults.

Smart grid technologies offer a variety of elements that can protect power systems and the people who depend on them, during emergency situations such as hurricanes, floods, earthquakes and other disaster scenarios. The upcoming hurricane Irma is likely be the sternest test yet for new and smart infrastructure in the southeast US.

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