As Hurricane Irma was traveling across Florida creating a trail of destruction, Vice President of Communications for Florida Power & Light (FPL), Rob Gould, told ABC News, “This is going to be a very, very lengthy restoration … what we think we’ll see on the west coast is a wholesale rebuild of our electric grid … This is going to be a very lengthy restoration – arguably the longest and most complex in U.S. history.”  

On September 12, it was reported that over 15 million people were without electricity, and it will take weeks to get the power back on for many.

An FPL official walked back some of the more dire estimates, but it remains clear that utility companies in the Southeast are going to be spending millions of ratepayer dollars repairing damages.

After another catastrophic storm, Hurricane Sandy, Northeastern utilities and regulators decided that they would rebuild in ways that would make the grid more resilient to outages, as well as cleaner, by speeding up the introduction of technologies like microgrids, distributed solar energy paired with storage, and combined heat and power. These technologies can’t prevent widespread outages during the kind of extreme weather events that will become more prevalent as the climate warms, but they can help isolate critical infrastructure like hospitals or transit systems so that they can bounce back faster.

Could a similar rebuild happen in the Southeast, so that it’s better prepared for the next storms?

The track record of the utility companies and the public officials in these states shows that a sea change of thinking would be required, but there are glimmers of hope.

Rebuild after Hurricane Sandy

In October 2012, Hurricane Sandy pummeled the Eastern seaboard. The storm caused 8.5 million power outages across 21 states.

It also created the opportunity to re-make and strengthen the electrical system in states that experienced significant damage.

In February 2014, the New York State Public Service Commission unanimously approved Con Edison’s rate case (initially filed in January 2013) that advanced significant clean energy and grid resiliency projects.

Attorneys Elizabeth Stein and Adam Peltz of the Environmental Defense Fund, which was a party in the case, wrote that the order was a “welcome coda to local storm recovery and resiliency efforts that have been in the works for some time now.”

Stein and Peltz detailed some of the specifics that resulted from the PSC order, including more distributed generation and microgrids such as on-site generation like combined heat and power “rather than relying solely on power generation and distribution from the traditional, centralized grid.” The attorneys further noted that Con Edison agreed to start treating customer-site projects as “integral parts of its system by considering them in its 24-month planning horizon.”

Stephen Lacey, Editor-in-Chief of Greentech Media and author of Resiliency: How Superstorm Sandy Changed America’s Grid, wrote in July 2014:

“Across Connecticut, Massachusetts, New Jersey and New York, more than $300 million has been spent or committed to develop distributed energy systems specifically to address events like Superstorm Sandy …

Sandy proved that networked, distributed generation could have a real impact during the most severe events. It also proved how rare those systems were compared to the ubiquity of the problems within the broader electricity system. But the storm undoubtedly created a new catalyst for investment with a lasting impact — not just for individual technologies, but also for networks of technologies with the ability to change how the grid functions over the long term.”

Hurricane Irma won’t be the last catastrophic storm to impact Florida and the Southeast. A 2015 Center for American Progress report finds that the effects of climate change, including sea level rise and extreme storms, will pose a great risk to the region’s grid.

A separate analysis from the Department of Energy suggests that in order to adapt to a warming world, “Investments in efficiency and distributed generation are increasingly recognized as viable strategies for improving energy system resilience.”

The DOE report recommended that the federal government establish a grant program to enhance energy infrastructure resilience, reliability, and security and cited the NJ TRANSITGRID microgrid as an example. The NJ TRANSITGRID project received $410 million from the government and “incorporated renewable energy, distributed generation, and other technologies to provide power to key NJ TRANSIT stations, maintenance facilities, bus garages, and other buildings” to allow transportation portions of the Northeast Corridor to continue to operate when the traditional grid fails.

Track record in the Southeast bodes poorly for distributed generation

An unwritten policy went into effect after Governor Rick Scott took office in 2011 that prohibited public employees from using the terms ‘climate change,’ ‘global warming’ or ‘sustainability,’ the Florida Center for Investigative Reporting reported.

“It’s an indication that the political leadership in the state of Florida is not willing to address these issues and face the music when it comes to the challenges that climate change present,” a former Florida Department of Environmental Protection attorney said.

Kathy Baughman McLeod, a conservation expert who served on the Florida Energy and Climate Commission that was effectively dismantled after Gov. Scott took office, told the Washington Post, “The science has been brought on a silver platter to Governor Scott, and he’s chosen not to do anything. If there is climate action, it’s all coming from local and regional collaboration. There is no state leadership on climate change in Florida, period.”

Art Graham, a commissioner on the Florida Public Service Commission (PSC), testified to Congress in 2015 on Obama’s Clean Power Plan to address climate change. U.S. Representative Castor (D-Tampa/St. Petersburg) grilled Commissioner Graham over his testimony and failure to talk about climate change. Rep. Castor highlighted the costs “heaped on Florida consumers by the PSC,” and cited several decisions the commissioners have taken, including their vote to gut the state’s energy efficiency goals by more than 90 percent for electric utilities and “stifling of clean energy and solar”. Commissioner Graham told Rep. Castor that he was not there to talk about that or climate change but instead the cost of the Clean Power Plan.

Additionally, the utility companies in these states, some of which have a history of climate denial and of funding climate deniers, have been hostile toward distributed generation.

FPL, Duke Energy, Southern Company’s Florida subsidiary, and Tampa Electric poured more than $20 million into the political committee, Consumers for Smart Solar, that backed the Amendment 1 ballot initiative in 2016. That campaign was exposed as a deceptive strategy that would have restricted the expansion of solar power.

Months later during the 2017 legislative session, FPL tried to insert language into legislation that would have similarly added barriers to rooftop solar growth.

Florida utilities have additionally been criticized for their focus on building centralized grid infrastructure and reliance on natural gas.

Frank Jackalone, director of Sierra Club Florida, wrote in November 2016 regarding FPL’s one billion dollars’ worth of new and expanded gas projects:

“These power plants are unnecessary, as FPL has admitted that homegrown solar and batteries could do at least as good a job of powering Floridian homes and businesses — at competitive prices … Earlier this summer, when asked if FPL studied non-gas options, the company’s president admitted: ‘at Florida Power & Light, I don’t know if we have that documentation.’ The president and other company executives also admitted that clean energy options such as solar and energy efficiency can be ‘very cost-effective.’”

Will a rebuild after Irma resemble post-Sandy?

There are two reasons for those living in these states that want a more resilient and cleaner grid to have hope.

Recent rate case settlement agreements with utilities, environmental groups, and consumer advocates are pushing the power companies to invest in grid modernization projects to make the grid more resilient. FPL is pursuing 50 megawatts in grid-tied battery energy storage demonstration projects; several battery projects will be co-located and paired with solar plants.

And just days before Irma impacted Florida, Duke Energy’s Florida subsidiary announced as part of its rate case settlement that among several decisions including the move to no longer progress with building the Levy Nuclear Project, it will invest in 700 megawatts of solar PV and 50 megawatts of energy storage.

If progress remains slow, however, customers will have opportunities to speak at the ballot box next year.

Along with the many state house and senate races happening in 2018, the governorships in Florida, Georgia, and South Carolina along with two Georgia PSC seats will all be decided. And, as of September 2017, there is one vacancy on the Florida PSC and two additional seats set to expire at the end of the year. (In Florida, the governor nominates the commissioners from a list provided by a nominating council while subject to Senate approval.)

Already, Senator Bill Nelson (D-FL), in an interview with POLITICO, criticized politicians who have denied climate change and minimize its impacts and said it will be an issue in his 2018 campaign, which will likely force the issue to be discussed with down-ballot candidates.

Utility companies and several issues surrounding them have also emerged as possible wedge issues for 2018 federal and state candidates in South Carolina and Georgia over nuclear power plant projects. It is not far fetched to assume these topics blend with post-Irma grid rebuild efforts and what ideas 2018 candidates have of what rebuilding the grid resembles.

FPL’s CEO and president, Eric Silagy, was quoted as saying “this is a monster” as Irma was impacting the area. There is no single solution or a grid infrastructure project that can withstand the devastation these types of hurricanes cause, but policymakers and utility leaders decided after Hurricane Sandy that some of the best steps to take was to move away from the traditional centralized grid, and invest in microgrid technology and on-site generation and storage. Perhaps, when the next ‘monster’ impacts the Southeast region, if the right measures are taken, it will not be as devastating to the electricity that people depend on to recover.

Posted by Matt Kasper

Matt Kasper is the Deputy Director at the Energy and Policy Institute. He focuses on defending policies that further the development of clean energy sources. He also focuses on the companies and their front groups that obstruct policy solutions to global warming. Before joining the Energy and Policy Institute in 2014, Matt was a research assistant at the Center for American Progress where he worked on various state and local policy issues.