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Hurricane Matthew represents a major test for Florida utilities

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Florida power companies are prepared for Hurricane Matthew, which is already causing significant power outages throughout the state.

But the storm, a Category 3 as of this writing, also represents a test — whether North Florida’s energy infrastructure can handle powerful winds and the resulting storm surge flooding.

While utilities throughout the Southeastern U.S. have been actively preparing for such an event, CNBC reports Matthew will nonetheless present a serious challenge to the region’s power grid, as millions of Floridians could be left without power.

The Florida Power & Light Co., which services roughly half of the state’s population, estimates as many as 1.2 million customers could be affected if Matthew continues on its current path up the state’s east coast.

Even though 12,000 workers have been activated for emergency response, Floridians could face still multiple power outages. Since 2006, FPL has invested more than $2 billion on grid improvements, with the goal of restoring power in as short a time as possible.

After back-to-back hurricane seasons of 2004 and 2005 brought a series of devastating storms, CNBC notes utilities have shored up their systems, with improved coordination between companies and within the communities they serve.

Hurricane Hermine, which slammed into the Florida Panhandle and Tallahassee one month ago, gave utilities a chance to test their systems. Although Hermine represented a sort of dress rehearsal, Matthew will still prove challenging — particularly because of its massive scale.

“We’re breaking a little bit of new ground here,” Ted Kury, director of energy studies at the University of Florida’s Warrington College of Business, told CNBC. “Some of this is unknown.”

Nevertheless, Kury pointed out utilities should come through Matthew with minimal threat to power generation, transmission systems, and power plants since they have been “adequately fortified” against the storm.

“I’d be very surprised if a power plant itself failed. You’re a lot more likely to see the interconnection of that power plant with the grid” to have a negative impact, Kury said. “That’s a lot more at risk.”

The main concern is not the generation of electricity, but distribution. Gainesville and inland areas have more power lines underground compared to the coastal regions of Florida, which still have lines aboveground. The chances for potential damage from storm surges and seawater contamination is still high with aboveground power lines, even though the cost of moving them underground is prohibitive.

“Especially here in Florida,” Kury said, “with the amount of coastline we have, there is not a blanket policy that works for everybody.”

Phil Ammann is a St. Petersburg-based journalist and blogger. With more than three decades of writing, editing and management experience, Phil produced material for both print and online, in addition to founding HRNewsDaily.com. His broad range includes covering news, local government and culture reviews for Patch.com, technical articles and profiles for BetterRVing Magazine and advice columns for a metaphysical website, among others. Phil has served as a contributor and production manager for SaintPetersBlog since 2013. He lives in St. Pete with his wife, visual artist Margaret Juul and can be reached at phil@floridapolitics.com and on Twitter @PhilAmmann.

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