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TECO and other Florida utilities grapple with unpredictable storms

An aerial view of a large pile-up of storm debris in a canal.
Caleb Ross
A large pile-up of storm debris is seen in a canal in Horseshoe Beach, Fla., on Thursday, Aug 31, 2023, following Hurricane Idalia’s landfall in Keaton Beach, Fla., Wednesday morning.

Top Florida utility officials said Tuesday increased intensity and unpredictability of hurricanes is making storm preparation more difficult --- and expensive.

Top Florida utility officials said Tuesday increased intensity and unpredictability of hurricanes is making storm preparation more difficult — and expensive.

Leaders of utility companies and associations representing municipal utilities and electric cooperatives made presentations to the Florida Public Service Commission as the six-month hurricane season gets ready to start June 1.

Armando Pimentel, president and CEO of Florida Power & Light, and Archie Collins, president and CEO of Tampa Electric Co., said the greater unpredictability will cause utilities to take what Pimentel described as a “conservative” approach to preparing for storms. For example, while a storm might be projected as a Category 1 hurricane, utilities will prepare for a Category 2 or 3 storm.

“It is very clear that there is more damage, for whatever reason,” Pimentel said. “There’s clearly more people. There’s clearly more buildings. There’s clearly an intensification going on. But there’s more damage. And so now we have to prepare for storms a little sooner than what we had, and it’s going to be a little bit more costly than what we had.”

Pimentel and Collins pointed to examples such as last year’s Hurricane Idalia and 2022’s Hurricane Ian, which gained strength and took unpredictable paths before making landfall as devastating storms.

“It is becoming an increasingly difficult game to figure out how to find that balance between being well-prepared and not overspending on planning for an impending hurricane,” Collins said.

Forecasters are predicting a busier-than-normal hurricane season this year, in part because of warm Atlantic Ocean water that fuels storms.

The state’s four private electric utilities — FPL, Tampa Electric, Duke Energy Florida and Florida Public Utilities Co. — typically are allowed to pass along costs for hurricane preparations and recovery to customers. That can include the costs of bringing in thousands of crew members from other parts of Florida and other states to restore power after storms hit.

Utility executives said Tuesday those efforts can become more complicated when utilities in nearby states are hesitant to send crews to Florida because of concerns their own states might get hit.

In bringing in crews, Melissa Seixas, state president of Duke Energy Florida, said utilities “are literally staging an army. We’ve got to house them, we’ve got to feed them. We’ve got to get their clothes washed. And of course, we need to help keep them safe.”

She said her company benefits from being able to bring in other Duke crews from South Carolina, North Carolina, Kentucky, Ohio and Indiana.

Public Service Commission member Gabriella Passidomo said with increased intensification of storms, “to be prepared for that is going to necessarily be more costly until forecasting technology vastly improves.”

“There’s a balance there. Of course, customers care tremendously about restoration and getting their power back on,” Passidomo said. “But affordability goes hand in hand with that, and so we’re just trying to balance.”

The utility officials said they are trying to be prepared.

“The waters are warm again this year,” Pimentel said. “We’re all cognizant of that. That’s what we’re going to prepare for this year.”

Jim Saunders is the Executive Editor of The News Service Of Florida.