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U.S. Utilities Invest in Technology, Build Customer Trust to Cope with Future Storms, Wildfires

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Facing the rising threat of wildfires in the west and devastating storms throughout the country, American utilities say they’re improving their storm response strategies, “hardening” and digitizing grids, and building proactive relationships with customers who don’t want to be left in the dark.

Utility Dive cites Florida Power & Light (FPL) as an example of a power company that has acted definitively on the hard lessons delivered by Hurricane Wilma in 2005. Whereas it took more than two weeks for FPL to restore power to 95% of its customers in the wake of Wilma, the utility needed less than half that time to restore power to the same degree after the state was battered by Hurricane Irma in 2017.

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Critical to that rapid response was FPL’s decision to “pre-stag[e] thousands of utility workers throughout the state,” well ahead of Irma’s making landfall, and to muster a restoration crew of 28,000 at its height.

Also important were the billions FPL spent post-Wilma to both physically “harden” the power system (for example, by installing concrete power poles) and digitize the grid to more swiftly locate and repair outages.

A key player in FPL’s much accelerated response to Hurricane Irma was a technology and services company called Itron, which helps the utility “to manage almost 4,000 automated feeder switches and 20,000 line sensors” that ultimately led to faster restoration rates, Utility Dive states. The company’s services included pole sensors designed to measure factors like tilt and shock, enabling the utility to remotely locate damage, isolate the issue, and determine a precision response. Though the sensors are still in the pilot stage, they’re seen as a big gain for utilities who must otherwise have to “drive the lines” after a storm, hunting for the source of an outage.

The Jacksonville Energy Authority (JEA), meanwhile, has added a program that helps individual communities fund underground power line systems, alongside serious investment in sensor and control technology similar to FPL’s. JEA is also investing in the emergency communication systems it will need to reach out to inform and reassure customers in the midst of a power outage.

“Customers understand a storm came through,” said Scott Aaronson, vice president of security and preparedness at the Edison Electric Institute. “What they don’t like is being left in the dark—both literally and figuratively.”

Aaronson added that utilities increasingly understand the value of communicating with their customers “on blue sky days”. The advance relationship-building lays the foundation for power companies to be seen as “a source of safety information, and a trusted voice,” he said.

Utility Dive says that sense of trust will be critical for California utilities that will be “tasked with informing customers about wildfire dangers—and the potential for proactive power shutoffs to reduce the risk.”