Study finds South Florida power grid vulnerable to sea rise and hurricanes

Florida Power and Light workers replaced wood poles with sturdier concrete poles after a record number of hurricanes hit South Florida between 2004 and 2005.
Florida Power and Light workers replaced wood poles with sturdier concrete poles after a record number of hurricanes hit South Florida between 2004 and 2005. Miami Herald Staff

Hurricanes and rising sea levels make South Florida’s power grid increasingly vulnerable, according to a new study that argues for building a more resilient energy system along the U.S. coastline.

The study, produced by the Union of Concerned Scientists, found that storm surge from a Category 3 hurricane could knock out about a sixth of Southeast Florida’s electrical substations. Factor in sea level rise projections and the number doubles, the report said. By 2070, with sea rise fueling storm surges that spread farther inland, the number could triple.

Miami Beach has put into action an aggressive and expensive plan to combat the effects of sea level rise. The city is rolling out its plan of attack and will spend between $400-$500 million over the next five years doing so.

“Coastal residents in these places and elsewhere on our coasts should be asking their utilities — and the commissions that regulate them — what they’re doing to protect their power plants and substations from current and increasing flood risks,” co-author Steve Clemmer, the UCS’s director of energy research, said in a statement.

Since the brutal 2004 and 2005 seasons, the utility has spent about $2 billion to strengthen the grid by installing flood monitoring equipment on substations, spokesman Bill Orlove said. FPL also outfitted 25 more vulnerable stations with surge-proof doors, hurricane-proof windows and sump pumps. By the end of this year, impact windows will be installed on another 228 substations, he said.

The utility also has incorporated 100-year flood estimates and the National Hurricane Center’s SLOSH model, Orlove said. That’s the same model forecasters use to warn residents about storm surge.

“We are taking steps with our substations to ensure we are able to provide reliable service, whether it be good weather or bad,” he said.

But the UCS argues that the utility needs to include future sea rise projections and expand the power supply to include more renewable energy.

Utilities “need to consider clean energy solutions like wind and solar coupled with energy storage that can simultaneously limit the severity of future climate impacts and provide communities with power even when the centralized electric grid goes down,” said co-author Julie McNamara.

The analysis examined five metropolitan regions, including the Delaware Valley, southeastern Virginia, the South Carolina Lowcountry, southeastern Florida and the central Gulf Coast. It found that if a Category 3 hurricane hit those regions today, 68 power plants and 415 major substations potentially could be flooded unless utilities have upgraded protections. Substations considered vulnerable ranged from 16 percent in southeastern Florida to nearly 70 percent in the central Gulf Coast.

Miami Beach, and South Florida, is experiencing a King tide during the full moon. Walter Michot / Miami Herald

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