By Erin Ailworth
Florida utilities warn that millions of people will likely lose electricity due to Hurricane Irma -- and some may not regain it for weeks -- despite billions of dollars in investments to strengthen the power grid in recent years.
Florida Power & Light Co., the state's largest investor-owned utility, is expecting the hurricane to knock out power to upward of 3.4 million of its nearly 5 million customers as it strikes and passes over Florida.
"Make no mistake, Irma is massive," Rob Gould, a vice president at FPL, said during a Saturday news conference. "There will be lots of debris lots of trees that will be flying around and unfortunately they will be flying into our lines -- we know that will occur."
Duke Energy Corp., the state's second largest utility, estimates more than 1 million outages as a result of Irma. The company serves about 1.8 million customers in Florida.
"Based on Hurricane Irma's current track, we expect all of our Florida service area to feel the effects of this powerful storm," said Luis Ordaz, storm director for Duke Energy Florida.
The gigantic storm covers an area more than double the size of the state, and was bearing down on Florida Saturday with maximum sustained winds of 125 miles an hour. That is a decrease from the Category 4 and 5 designations Irma held for much of Friday. Still, utilities continued to prepare customers for extended loss of electricity.
FPL, a unit of NextEra Energy Inc., said Saturday that it was re-evaluating whether it would need to shut down two nuclear power plants it operates in the state, given a shift in Irma's track.
The company and its power-providing peers in Florida have spent billions of dollars over the last several years upgrading their technology and infrastructure to better handle storms.
FPL has spent $3 billion since its system was slammed by seven hurricanes in 2004 and 2005. Improvements include replacing wooden poles and transmission structures with concrete ones, installing real-time water monitors to alert the utility to flooding at 223 substations susceptible to storm surge, using smart meters to identify outages more quickly and automated switching technology to reroute around trouble spots.
Duke has spent more than $2.4 billion on similar upgrades since 2004, including using "self-healing" systems to reroute power.
The improvements, utility representatives said, are designed not to prevent outages wholesale, but rather limit damage so that it is easier to restore lost power more quickly. But given Irma's size and strength, the companies were preparing for the worst.
Calling Irma a "deadly and devastating storm," Mr. Gould, with FPL, warned customers not to be complacent.
"This will no doubt be one of the most complex restorations that the company has ever seen," he said. "With a storm of this magnitude and intensity our crews will likely need to completely rebuild parts of our electric system.... We anticipate this restoration effort will be measured in weeks, not days."
All the utility companies were mustering thousands of employees -- including workers from utilities from more than two dozen states -- to be ready to repair outages in Irma's wake.
FPL said it had more than 16,000 restoration workers positioned across Florida. Duke had mobilized roughly 8,000, including 1,500 from its own Midwest operations.
Bonnie Erdek, a spokeswoman for Florida Public Utilities Co., a subsidiary of Chesapeake Utilities Corp., said her company has been having storm calls twice a day to prepare for Irma. It serves about 120,000 customers.
"In South Florida, we are just standing by," Ms. Erdek said. "We're bringing in linemen, many of whom just left Texas."
At Gulf Power, a subsidiary of Southern Co. that serves just over 455,000 customers in Northwest Florida, spokesman Rick DelaHaya said the company was also keeping an eye on the storm in case it shifts closer to the Gulf.
Write to Erin Ailworth at [email protected]