TALLAHASSEE — Many longtime Floridians remember the storm that hit the state in December 1989.
“The storm resulted in the first white Christmas on record from northeastern Florida to North Carolina,” a National Weather Service review said. “Snow fell in Tampa and Daytona Beach as Florida experienced its most widespread snowstorm in history and their first white Christmas in history as airports and interstates were shut down. Snow and sleet fell as far south as a Sarasota to Melbourne line. Many traffic accidents and several fatalities occurred on ice-covered roads in North Florida. … Power blackouts hit hundreds of thousands of residents at various times during the holiday weekend.”
Now, more than 32 years later, Florida Power & Light is pointing to the storm as it pursues a controversial proposal for future power-plant projects.
FPL presented the proposal Wednesday to the state Public Service Commission as part of a normally routine process of utilities updating 10-year “site” plans. FPL wants to use the 1989 storm as a basis for planning to expand the capacity of power plants and make other changes to handle what is known as “peak” demand during the winter.
Andrew Whitley, manager of integrated resource planning at FPL, said the utility developed the proposal after studying massive outages caused by cold weather in February 2021 in Texas.
“The first conclusion was that FPL could not be sure of its ability to serve all its customers in the event of an extreme winter event with the resource plan presented in FPL’s 2021 site plan,” FPL said in its proposed site plan. “The second conclusion followed from the first conclusion: The prudent course of action was for FPL to take steps to be better prepared for an extreme winter event.”
But the possibility of using the 1989 storm to plan for potentially costly projects drew heavy opposition from the state Office of Public Counsel, which represents consumers in utility issues, and other critics.
Deputy Public Counsel Charles Rehwinkel said the proposal would deviate from a planning process that electric utilities have long used. He and other opponents also disputed a connection to the Texas outages, pointing to issues such as a different regulatory structure in Texas.
Rehwinkel called the FPL proposal a “novel hypothesis.”
“The past 33 years, neither FPL nor any other utility has seen fit to apply this historical event to its expansion, so why now?” Rehwinkel said. “Well, the answer is, there’s no good evidence-based reason to change the process.”
The FPL proposal calls for upgrading existing power plants to add 700 megawatts of generation capacity to help meet peak winter demand. Also, it would seek to “repurpose” five plants that had been slated to be shut down so they could be used if extreme winter weather is forecast.
Whitley said it would cost an estimated $140 million to make the upgrades and that the repurposing costs would be “minimal.”
The proposal said those changes would prepare FPL for severe winter weather through 2026. FPL also wants to add battery-storage capacity to provide more capacity from 2027 to 2031.
In the past, FPL has used a planning process that involved looking at a 50 percent probability that a “peak load” will be higher than forecast and a 50 percent probability that it will be lower than forecast. But in its proposal, FPL said severe cold over several days could lead to electricity use that is far higher than expected.
“In the 1989 event, the electrical heating loads were so high that FPL could not serve all of the customer demand,” the proposal said. “This resulted in large numbers of customers experiencing periods in which power to their homes could not be delivered, i.e., customers experienced ‘rolling blackouts.’”
It could be months before the Public Service Commission decides whether to sign off on the proposal. Also, FPL would have to return to the commission for additional approvals before it could move forward with the projects and pass along costs to customers.