Daily equipment assessments and automated feeder switches directing power flow are expected to help Florida Power & Light prevent outages during natural disasters.
Standing next to a 6,000-pound steel and concrete pole Florida Power & Light was erecting at the eastern end of University Parkway, spokesperson George Bennett talked about his company's technological advances.
It was part of FPL's effort to show local residents how it is upgrading its main power lines to withstand hurricane-force winds and deal with potential power outages caused by severe storms.
The new pole at the end of University Parkway includes an automated smart feeder switch, which during a power outage can send information back to FPL staff on the location of the outage. The switch also has the ability to reroute power around the affected area. FPL now has 200,000 such devices throughout its coverage area.
Along with showcasing the sturdier pole and smart switch, FPL demonstrated how it uses more than 200 drone flights a day to assess its power lines and equipment. Bennett emphasized how drones would be used after a severe storm to identify problem areas, and to get "the right crews and the right equipment to the right place to help speed restoration."
Also present at the demonstration was Rick Teigland, a manager of grid automation with the company, who said the ability of the automated feeder switches to direct the flow of power has been a game-changer.
He said the smart switches actually have the ability to communicate with each other in an effort to direct power around a problem area. Although the problem area might not have restored power until a repair, the areas beyond that problem area can continue to have their flow of power. He said often that communication can result in restored power to most customers in less than a minute.
“Instead of having 2,000 customers waiting for a repair, you only have 300 to 500 waiting for a repair,” he said.
Bennett said it was back when Hurricane Charley (2004) and Hurricane Wilma (2005) hit Florida that FPL decided it needed to make advancements to be more prepared for natural disasters.
“Those storms in a short amount of time led not just FPL, but I think all of Florida, to reexamine, and make upgrades to our systems,” Bennett said.
Teigland said about 85% of the switches are on above-ground lines, and about 15% are underground, although the company is now focusing more on building them below ground.
He said the newest switches have the capability to send out a low-level pulse of electricity to identify problem areas. That low-level pulse does not affect the system's ability to provide power to homes. Previously, in checking for problems, power was toggled to neighborhoods, which would affect a home's power.
Barry Lawson, a production lead with FPL, said 10 years ago the company began upgrading its power lines to better withstand hurricane-force winds. The University Parkway pole was an example of the newest design.
According to FPL spokesperson Marshall Hastings, poles in the Manatee and Sarasota County area are required to withstand winds up to 130 miles per hour, as required by the National Electric Safety Code’s standards.
Lawson said the process of upgrading power lines is known as “hardening.” He said the steel and concrete poles used for the transmission lines – or mainline power lines – are installed primarily because of the higher voltage of those lines.
Bennett said other components of hardening include spacing power lines more closely together, something which decreases their susceptibility to damage. He said another important component is management of vegetation, with trees blowing into lines being a leading cause of power outages.
He said measures are taken to prevent flooding from storm surge in substations that manage power from below ground.
He said pole inspections are now conducted every eight years.
Once the poles are installed, they require constant supervision, an obligation which Lawson said is made vastly easier by the use of drones, which came into the picture 10 years ago.
Lawson said the company used to perform what was known as climate inspection, which required its staff to be physically present to check the wires, using a bucket lift truck.
“That's a very slow, tedious, and time- consuming process,” he said. “(Using drones) is better, quicker, and safer.”
FPL drone pilot Matthew Harvey said the drones use a 30x optical (telescopic) zoom. He said although each pole is different, typically the optical zoom is sufficient to uncover any issues. The drones are also equipped with the ability to zoom an image digitally and also can transmit an infrared view to staff members.
Lawson said the infrared technology allows engineers to detect, and proactively respond to, damage which is not externally visible, and can only be observed through heat levels.
“Climbing the pole, you're not going to see those heat-related issues until there's substantial damage,” he said. “This technology will pick it up well before any damage occurs.”
He said some components which often experience failures include the lightning arresters, which divert the energy from lightning strikes away from the power lines and into the ground. Lawson said these devices are important for protecting customers from electrical surges and can become damaged internally.
“That’s pretty important,” he said of ensuring those devices are operational. “We have a lot of lightning around here.”
He said another concern is damage to electrical wiring, indicated by “hotspots” where increasing heat levels are observed.
Drones identify woodpecker damage to insulators, which is a frequent problem. Drones also spot other concerns that include rusted screws, bolts and insulators, along with loose wiring.
If a drone is within sight of a pilot, it can be used to examine power lines up to two miles away. FPL is now attempting to obtain a license which would allow it to operate the drones outside of their line of sight.
Hastings said many residents are not aware of the complexity involved in the company’s efforts to maintain its power distribution, and that he wanted to inform the public about the numerous facets involved.
“There's a lot of pieces behind the puzzle that that make it come together,” he said.
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