Louisiana storms
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Smart Energy International spoke to David Herlong, senior director of distribution at Florida Power & Light (FPL), about the utility’s storm preparations and the lessons learned from extreme weather events.

This article was originally published in Smart Energy International 4-2018.  

Utility storm preparation strategies and response management

Storm season in the US is in full swing and utilities may well find themselves in the path of a hurricane sweeping across the country, wreaking havoc on the grid and communications structures. As epicentres of storm preparation, utilities need to embrace a state of preparedness as part of their 24/7 operations.

In order to understand more about how utilities prepare for storm season, as well as some of the strategic considerations to minimise risk, Florida Power & Light Company provided insight into preparation best practices, plus how a culture of collaboration can keep the lights burning.

David Herlong, senior director: distribution control centre and smart grid operations,explains the imperative nature of resiliency plans, stakeholder communication and effective mutual aid agreements.

Preparation, planning and practice

FPL conducts an annual hurricane simulation drill, which sees 3,000 employees (one third of FPL’s workforce) assume and practise their storm response roles.

Physical staging sites are set up, trucks are stranded, people move to re-fuelling and gathering stations and housing plans are formulated. The pseudo storm is given a name; and full simulations, including the logistics of restoring power, are conducted.

Representatives from local government,Edison Electric Institute, the White House,Department of Homeland Security and Department of Energy are included in the simulation. The idea is to do more than just practise, but rather to stress test the plan,identifying pitfalls and risks before the real storm hits.

Simulation teams also assist in utility preparedness by randomly injecting real-life scenarios into a simulation. This increases awareness and allows lessons to be learned with minimum risk and fallout.

It’s all about resiliency

After every large weather event, it is vital for a utility to evaluate every aspect of its performance, especially in terms of operational efficiency and response time.

Herlong refers specifically to the lessons learned after Hurricanes Andrew (August 1992) and Wilma (2005). Andrew directly resulted in enhanced design standards and greater physical resiliency of the grid.

After Hurricane Wilma, FPL evaluated once again. More focus was placed on building resiliency and implementing best practices and standards, as a way to enhance customer service and improve safety for staff and customers alike. FPL made agreements with the local utility commission to invest customer money in building a more resilient system.

Examples of these grid enhancements include:

• Strengthening 860 main power lines,including those that serve critical community facilities and services, such as hospitals, police and fire stations and other services necessary for communities to recover after a storm;

• Clearing vegetation – a major cause of power outages – from more than 15,000 mi(24,000 km) of power lines each year;• Inspecting the company’s 1.2 million power poles every eight years, and upgrading or replacing those that no longer meet FPL’s standards for strength; and

• Installing more than five million smart meters and more than 90,000 intelligent devices to help predict, reduce and prevent power outages, and restore power faster if outages occur.

“It’s like in any industry: it’s all about higher quality products, lower prices and faster response time” says Herlong.

Storms like Andrew and Wilma have seen FPL make the energy grid stronger, smarter and more storm-resilient to provide reliable service to its customers and to get the communities it serves back to normal faster following severe weather.

Stakeholder communication

One of the most vital parts of the process is keeping communications open with customers, along with all relevant stakeholders.

As utilities have improved their restoration services, so has communication with customers become more of a priority.

People expect to be kept in the loop regarding what is happening in their area and the expected time it will take to restore their power. Once people have been evacuated and their families are safe,the most important piece of information concerns ETA of the power supply.

To this end, it is important that utilitie set realistic expectations. They need to be honest with customers regarding the plan of action and restoration status.

FPL has answered the call for more proactive communication practices by getting more information out via their website and on social media. They also launched a mobile app during Hurricane Irma (August 2017).

Herlong says: “Every single customer should expect to be able to get news and receive messages from us. In order to facilitate this,we have had to build our communication systems more resiliently.”

Mutual aid agreements

The electricity industry is unique in that for many years utilities have banded together in mutual exchanges and aid agreements.

This allows resources and information to be shared throughout extreme weather events,ultimately supporting efforts to keep the lights on.

Florida Power & Light, for example, has agreements in place with South Eastern Electric Exchange, a trade association of investor-owned electric utility companies based in Orlando. Regarding this agreement, Herlong says: “This allows us to get on the phone and say, ‘here is the current storm track, we have 1,000 people available and need 1,000 more.’The resources we need in that emergency and the status of the storm are placed on a draft board, which allows all the surrounding utilities to pitch in with the best they can.”When it comes to maximising these agreements, the trick is to know the path of the storm, as mutual aid can only be secured once the territory in the path of the storm has been identified.

The important first step is to share resources and have those agreements in place well in advance. A utility cannot wait until the storm season begins to get these channels of assistance in place. These kinds of collaborative relationships also allow lessons learned to be shared, allowing other utilities to avoid similar pitfalls.

Herlong explained that when the Northeast was hit with Superstorm Sandy (the deadliest and most destructive hurricane of the 2012 Atlantic hurricane season), they were able to make use of the lessons learned by FPL, utilising their ‘operational blueprint’ which had been generated over many years of experience.

Lessons learned

“The important part about going through powerful storms is that it’s a constant learning curve. It’s only through stubbing our toes that we have been able to achieve continuous improvement and learn through every event,” Herlong explains.

When it comes to managing communication with external stakeholders, the first step is to relay to both federal and local government the potential impact of the storm. As the storm matures, messaging must be sent out at state, regional and county level concerning where the worst damage is likely to be and when repairs will be made.

FPL has learned to avoid micro level detail,especially early on, when the focus is on regional information. As the storm moves over, updates on area outages and damage are provided. On the whole, it’s easier to communicate failures on main lines and their repair status, as outages beyond the main line could take much longer to locate and repair.

“The truth is that utilities tend to be better at communicating during single points of failure,” says Herlong. Multiple failures make messaging more complicated and FPL believes it is better to be conservative and work your way down the funnel to more specific repair scenarios. He also reiterates that the largest problem with communications is the root of what we are trying to communicate.

Surveys suggest that customers would rather be told accurate information with potentially longer restoration time, than be told they will be back online sooner when that information is inaccurate.

FPL has learned that when it comes to customer communication, lines must be kept open all year round in order to build the brand and necessary trust relationship with customers. By letting people know what is happening in their areas – tree trimming,pole replacement etc – they have the background information on utility efforts to keep power up year round.

Concerning communication, storm preparation is quintessentially a year-round effort. Customers will know what is being done in advance – as well as mid-storm – to assist and keep them safe.

Future trends

Herlong was clear on some of the key trends we can expect to see in the next five to 10 years and how these trends could potentially impact storm preparation.

Standards are the new black

The FPL resiliency campaign commenced 20 years ago. The annual review process ensures that every stage of the campaign continues based on achieved results and this has resulted in improving standards,ensuring equipment is better, stronger and more durable.

The industry as a whole will continue to increase focus on achieving resiliency through standards and best practices.

The grid is now an interconnected

flow of information and electrons and includes an increasingly complex generation and distribution network. If this complexity is managed effectively, the physics of the network will be reliable and resilient,providing daily benefits, as well as benefits in response to a storm. Standards and best practices are key to managing this complexity.

Tech ubiquity

The role of the utility has changed dramatically as consumer expectations for technological innovation increase. According to Herlong, “we will end up looking more like a technology company that conveys electrons, than an electricity company delivering technology.”

He explains that in order for a utility to fulfil its communication functions effectively, the technology and automation must be in place and functioning optimally.

Resilient communications infrastructure will become more prevalent, together with the redundancy required to maximise smart meter devices through increased up-time.

More resilient smart devices will ensure a more resilient grid and better service to customers, especially during a storm.

DERM

Distributed generation sources such as electric vehicles, battery storage and solar panels are growing in popularity. These can prove advantageous in terms of demand management; however, the industry must ask how these resources will hold up in a storm and what the potential impact on storm recovery strategies could be.

The current mindset is positive, however, utilities are starting to consider how solar panels will generate power if the roof has been blown off a house, how the battery storage unit in the garage will store power if the garage has been flooded, or how power can be restored when micro-grid wires and cables have been damaged.

The abundance of distributed energy resources (DERs) complicates grid resiliency measures and restoration procedures.

Homeowners, developers and insurers will need to re-think this space to incorporate the same resilience mentality in the installation of these DERs. If this is not addressed, the result will be untold challenges and many customers left in the dark.

Conclusion

When it comes to effective storm preparation,plans need to be in place long before the wind starts to blow. Preparation initiatives need to occur all year round to maximise the benefits for utility and customers alike.

Mutual aid agreements with other utilities ensure support in times of a crisis; scenario analysis and storm drills identify potential pitfalls and planning weaknesses before the time; and comprehensive communication plans keep stakeholders safe and in the know.

All preparation and planning measures,however, need to be framed within the context of resiliency and working to strengthen all aspects of the grid. This will ensure that no storm passes without valuable experience being gained and plugged into a continuous improvement strategy that keeps power up and customers satisfied.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Dave Herlong is senior director: distribution control centre and smart grid operations at Florida Power & Light Company (FPL). He has worked for FPL for over 22 years.

Previously, Herlong served as director: smart grid and innovation where he was responsible for key strategies in smart grid analytics, upgrading grid technology to improve situational awareness and leveraging the Power Delivery Diagnostic Center (PDDC) capabilities.

Herlong earned his Bachelor of Science degree in industrial and systems engineering from the University of Florida in 1995. He is a graduate of the United States Marine Corps Officer Candidate School, in Quantico, Virginia, and is a certified Six Sigma quality black belt. He has recently earned an Executive Certificate in Strategy & Innovation from Sloan School of Management, Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Cambridge, MA.