Florida Power & Light Co.
Contractor's crews inspect and reinforce poles one by one.

Pole by pole, Florida's utilities are hardening their systems to prepare for hurricane season. Most have filed multiyear system-improvement plans with the Florida Public Service Commission by its May 7 deadline.

Florida Power & Light Co., Juno Beach, is planning by far the largest investment. Under a program dubbed Storm Secure, the utility will inspect, then treat, reinforce or replace, 1.2 million poles on an eight-year cycle, down from its previous 10- to 12-year cycle. FPL anticipates spending about $50 million annually to support infrastructure hardening under its operations and maintenance budget. In addition, the utility plans incremental Storm Secure capital investments of $70 million to $200 million per year.

FPL spent $11 million in 2006 on the pole inspection program and anticipates spending between $32 million and $42 million in 2007. Crews inspected 96,000 poles in 2006, and FPL set a goal of 127,000 poles for 2007.

Osmose Utilities Services, Buffalo, N.Y., is inspecting the poles, beginning with coastal counties, which have the oldest equipment, and working inland, says Lucy Perera, manager of FP&L's power system pole inspection program. Crews inspect 500 poles daily, first with visual appraisal, then drilling holes to check if they seem solid. If a pole is good, workers excavate around it and apply a moisture shield. They also assess whether the equipment is overloading the pole and may reinforce the poles with metal or replace them.

Lines serving critical infrastructure, such as hospitals, special-needs shelters and water-treatment plants receive extra attention. They are hardened to withstand 135-mph to 150-mph wind loads, trees are trimmed on a three-year cycle and overhead lines are placed underground.

"FPL is stepping up its distribution system, and every new construction and upgrade will be built to withstand up to 150-mph wind gusts," says Karen Vissepo, FPL spokeswoman. "That could mean that we are replacing wood poles with a stronger, tougher wood pole or it could be a spun concrete, or plain concrete, adding more poles in between poles, undergrounding certain sections and other type of engineering possibilities."

Other investor-owned utilities also have hardening plans. Progress Energy, Raleigh, N.C., plans to spend $91 million on hardening and system improvements. Tampa Electric Co. plans to spend about $80 million replacing or hardening 623 transmission poles, inspecting and replacing 1,420 distribution poles and managing vegetation. And Gulf Power, Pensacola, Fla., plans to spend $1.6 million over three years, focusing hardening on critical infrastructure facilities and major thoroughfares.