Florida's electric grid must be rebuilt after Hurricane Ian battered the state and blacked out 2.6 million homes and businesses - many of which face days or weeks without power.
Ian walloped Florida's electric system despite years of efforts by the state's utilities to harden it. After a string of major hurricanes ravaged the state in 2004 and 2005, Florida utilities invested billions of dollars upgrading the system, replacing many wooden utility poles with concrete and placing some power lines underground. The Florida Public Service Commission said that the state's four biggest utilities spent $3 billion on storm protection in 2020 and 2021.
"I don't care how much you spend, if a Category 5 hits, it's going to tear up something," said J.R. Kelly, a former utility customer advocate for Florida's Office of Public Counsel. There is no foolproof system. Ian, a Category 5 storm with 150 mile-per-hour winds, was just shy of being a Category 5 storm and destroyed the electrical system along Florida's southwest coast. The counties closest to the storm's landfall Charlotte and Lee counties are now off the grid, said Florida Governor Ron DeSantis.
Florida Power Light, Florida utility NextEra Energy Inc., said that some customers in southwest Florida will have to be reconstructed because parts of the electric system will need to be rebuilt. DeSantis said Thursday at a press conference that the work needed is more than just connecting power lines back to poles. Other counties probably won't require a structural rebuild.
The blackouts Ian left in its wake would have been worse without the state's investments in its grid, said Michael Webber, an energy professor at the University of Texas at Austin. He compared the fallout from Ian to the millions of others in the Lone Star State who lost power during a brutal cold snap in 2021.
Webber said that the same storm hitting other states would knock the power out to millions of people.
As many as 1.7 million Florida Power Light customers have been lacked power despite Ian's wrath, below the more than 4 million during Hurricane Irma in 2017 according to Jeffrey Cassella, an analyst at Moody's Investors Service. It would be unfair to expect that we could prevent the storms that we are having, because these storms are so severe. Florida Power Light and Duke Energy Corp. reported on Thursday that they had restored power to some customers affected by Ian. Both cautioned that the floods, winds and rain still trailed the storm, hampering efforts to assess the damage.
Eric Silagy, chief executive officer of Florida Power Light, said some destroyed areas that simply can't be repaired and need to be rebuilt.