Modernizing the country’s electrical infrastructure is high on the U.S. Department of Energy’s agenda — and the head of the agency said Thursday that Florida Power & Light has taken the lead.
At the end of a tour of FPL facilities highlighting the utility’s initiatives to strengthen its electrical grid, Energy Secretary Ernest Moniz announced $220 million in federal funding for a new multiyear grid modernization program.
“Modernizing the U.S. electrical grid is essential to reducing carbon emissions, creating safeguards against attacks on our infrastructure, and keeping lights on,” Moniz said in remarks to the press at an FPL facility in Miami. “This public-private partnership between our National Laboratories, industry, academia, and state and local government agencies will help us further strengthen our ongoing efforts to improve our electrical infrastructure so that it is prepared to respond to the nation’s energy needs for decades to come.”
DOE’s National Laboratories and other partners will receive the funding, aimed at supporting research to strengthen the country’s grid in light of climate-change threats.
“Climate change is certainly something we have to react to — that hardening of infrastructure is part of that,” Moniz said. “Unfortunately we have to be prepared for more extreme weather, more damage from storm surges, hurricanes.”
But he emphasized that FPL — which serves about half of Florida — stands out in its innovations to strengthen its grid.
“FPL really is on the cutting edge of addressing a grid for the 21st century and particularly in the area of resilience,” he said. “It’s really what we need.”
Moniz toured the utility’s newly remodeled System Control Center in Miami, as well as a substation and a nearby site in Fort Lauderdale where hardening activities are underway. He arrived in Florida two days after President Barack Obama pressed for clean energy and technological innovation in his State of the Union Address.
In the past 10 years, FPL has invested more than $2 billion in producing “smart” technology for its grid, cutting emergency response times and increasing its resilience in severe weather, including hurricanes.
“We’re working to build the strongest grid in the world,” said Manny Miranda, vice president of power delivery for FPL. “In 2004 and 2005, we experienced seven storms in 18 months. These programs help build a smarter and stronger grid. The benefits have provided reliability and lowered operating costs while really providing better customer service.”
To strengthen or “harden” its electric grid, FPL has inspected 1.2 million utility poles, cleared vegetation from 120,000 miles of power lines, and installed flood mitigation and monitoring equipment at substations. It has created an interconnected information communication system between its equipment and its System Control Center. Vans equipped to act as “mobile command centers” can be deployed to high-profile events to relay electrical information to the center and the crews can send information to the center from iPads. During emergencies, aerial drones will be able to take photos of inaccessible areas, cutting emergency response times.
“The biggest concern with hurricanes is trees — they can take the lines out,” said Kristi Baldwin, FPL’s director of IT business solutions. Instead of having to send helicopters, she said, “drones can fly over substations, over lines and can determine failure if there’s a power outage.”
And the company has made improvements on the household level as well. It has installed 4.8 million “smart” meters that can prevent outages and restore power faster should outages occur. The meters frequently update reports on customers’ power use, allowing them to make decisions that can allow them to cut electricity bills.
Stopping first at an operating substation in Fort Lauderdale, Moniz learned how FPL’s flood mitigation technology protects its over 600 substations during storms. FPL has installed flood-resistant doors and has sealed windows and other openings in substation vaults, as well as water monitors that let the Control System Center know if flooding occurs.
“We’re able to be preventive and know when water can take the equipment out,” said FPL President and CEO Eric Silagy. “Whereas before, water would have risen and would have blown equipment. That saves customers millions of dollars.”
At the second stop nearby, FPL operatives presented a hardening project featuring new automated switches on power lines that can detect and prevent “flickers” and other power interruptions that occur when tree branches fall on power lines. Instead of requiring crews to come to the scene, the switches turn off power to a line if they detect a problem, and are able to isolate the circuit so fewer people are affected by an outage. FPL has also replaced its utility poles with ones that can withstand stronger winds and falling trees during storms.
The last stop featured a tour of the new FPL System Control Center and marked the first time media were granted a visit. Completed in September, the control center features a video wall more than 188 feet wide and 14 feet high, from which operators can view the utility’s power line system for the entire state and execute operations. With control of around 8,700 devices at more than 600 substations, the center can directly restore electricity transmission at substations and quickly address power outages.
“Its like a highway — they’re connected all over the place,” said Ed Batalla, the director of the Grid Control Systems. “Then you say, what if a big [power] line goes off? What happens to the flow? What can we do to make it better?”
Moniz emphasized the importance of improving the grid across the country.
“This is really a big focus,” he said. “We are now looking squarely at electricity end to end.”