Deadly Texas storm motivates Florida Power & Light to prepare for extreme winter weather
Among the most common natural disasters that threaten Florida, its people and its power grids are hurricanes, which are fueled by warm waters during a season that stretches across spring, summer and fall.
But Florida isn't immune to the effects of harsh cold weather, as evidenced as recently as January when a crop-damaging freeze hit. Plus, through the purchase of Gulf Power Co., Florida Power & Light Co. added to its service territory in 2019 most of the Panhandle, an area that more often sees freezes and even sees snow.
Depending how severe, both can lead to power outages for different reasons, whether it's because power lines are downed from gale-force winds or an overstressed grid as residents seek warmth.
Extreme cold rare in most of Florida, but Texas storm serves as warning
While extreme cold weather may be less common than hurricanes in the Sunshine State, the deadly Texas winter storm last year that left millions without power and exposed them to record-low temperatures has motivated FPL to seriously consider how prepared it would be in the face of a similar threat in its coverage area.
To accomplish this, the Juno Beach-based utility intends to keep some power plants in rotation, rather than destine them for retirement, and nearly double the amount of its future battery storage capacity.
“We believe it’s reasonable to expect that it’s going to happen in the future, and we need to be prepared for it,” FPL spokesperson Chris McGrath said. "We learn from every single storm."
Five generating units powered by natural gas in Manatee County and the Panhandle that are capable of generating 1,790 megawatt-hours of energy will be put on “emergency standby mode,” McGrath said, should the need arise to meet high electricity demand.
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The two Manatee County units were set to retire at the end of 2021, after the company unveiled its solar-powered battery with a 409-megawatt capacity in Parrish, and the other three units in Bay and Escambia counties would have gone offline over the next six years.
FPL cold-weather plan outlined in filing for state utility regulators
FPL outlined these plans in a 10-year outlook submitted each year to the Public Service Commission, which regulates investor-owned electric and gas utilities. While the climate and grid system in Texas differs from Florida, the scenario isn’t one anyone wants to see repeated.
After the February 2021 storm in Texas lasted for several days and was linked to the deaths of 246 people, FPL said in its nearly 600-page document that it "could not be sure of its ability to serve all of its customers in the event of an extreme winter weather event."
The utility noted that demand for electricity in the winter is typically lower than in the summer, and extreme winter weather in Florida can be “infrequent,” but it cited two instances in its history when high demand in response to frigid temperatures left customers without power. Many succumbed to the effects of hypothermia, while others died because they relied on electricity-powered medical devices.
The first example presented was a freeze around Christmas in 1989. The holiday weekend was met with arctic air, bringing area temperatures down to the 20s. FPL was faced with an overloaded system, with more than 1 million customers across Florida hit with rolling blackouts, and 300,000 without power for several hours.
Almost two decades later, thousands lost power when a long streak of cold weather hit South Florida. FPL hit a peak for electrical demand at 21,500-megawatt hours on a January day in 2010, a record that remains today.
Had FPL not considered extreme winter weather in this year’s 10-year outlook, the utility was prepared to add 1,800 megawatts of battery storage to its fleet between now and 2031. Now, considering a potential weather threat to the grid, the utility wants to add 3,200 megawatts of battery storage.
How would Biden administration's stalled Build Back Better legislation benefit FPL?
How quickly FPL expands its solar plant fleet could hinge one piece of legislation: Build Back Better.
The infrastructure spending package passed by the House last year has yet to pass the Senate, with two Democratic senators throwing a wrench in the possibility of the bill ever moving forward.
Still, FPL is eyeing the potential tax credits associated with new utility-owned renewable energy. The legislation boosts the tax credit for batteries to 30% from 10% and lets utilities receive a tax credit based on the amount of megawatt hours generated from a new solar facility
For the first time, the legislation proposes a credit for hydrogen plants at $3 per kilogram of hydrogen produced. This could aid FPL as the utility works on a pilot “green” hydrogen plant in Okeechobee to go into service late next year.
By using solar energy – which is why the process is considered "green" – to split water into hydrogen and oxygen, the company believes it could replace natural gas as a fuel, further weaning FPL off fossil fuels.
The money saved through tax credits, McGrath said, is “passed right onto customers.”
Without knowing what the future of this legislation holds, FPL through 2031 plans to add enough solar facilities to produce 9,462-megawatt hours of energy. New power-generating facilities, including solar, are paid for by customers through their monthly bills.
But if these renewable energy tax credits were passed, the utility could more than double that figure.
“Build Back Better would allow us to accelerate future builds into earlier years to take advantage of cost savings,” McGrath said.
Other highlights of FPL’s 10-year outlook:
- The utility will retire its stakes in four coal-powered generating units outside Florida, some of which were absorbed through the acquisition of Gulf Power. The 76% ownership in a 630-megawatt unit in Georgia was retired in January, while the 50% ownership of two units totaling 500 megawatts in the Mississippi Power service territory will be retired by January 2024. Lastly, the 25% ownership of another 215-megawatt unit in Georgia will be retired by the end of 2028.
- By 2031, FPL plans to get 38% of its energy from zero-emission sources.
- FPL will officially connect its system with Gulf Power by mid-2022 by installing a 161-kilovolt transmission line.
Hannah Morse covers consumer issues for The Palm Beach Post. Drop a line at email@example.com, call 561-820-4833 or follow her on Twitter @mannahhorse.