PANAMA CITY — In an effort to make Florida's energy grid stronger and more resilient against future storms, Northwest Florida is now connected to the rest of the state.
Florida Power and Light officials on Thursday dedicated the "North Florida Resiliency Connection," a state-of-the-art, storm-hardened transmission line.
The transmission line is 176 miles long, crossing seven counties from Columbia to Jackson. It connects the Panhandle with peninsular Florida's power grid.
FPL officials said the "energy superhighway" will restore power quicker during severe weather and is expected to save customers millions of dollars in fuel costs. It also has created hundreds of jobs in the Panhandle, FPL officials said.
Benefits of the transmission line
Joined by Panama City and state leaders at Gulf Coast State College, FPL Chairman and CEO Eric Silagy discussed the technology behind the new transmission line and its benefits.
"We're able to ship electricity across the state, it helps with resiliency and helps us during storms but also helps us every single day because we're able to bring in power that's less costly to produce in Northwest Florida," Silagy said. "Which, over time, is going to help lower bills and it's going to increase again the resiliency, the reliability of what's already the most reliable grid in the United States, but we're not satisfied. We're gonna keep doing it."
Area officials lauded the project and what it will mean for Panhandle residents. Panama City Mayor Greg Brudnicki and Florida State Fire Marshal Jimmy Patronis spoke of their experiences after Hurricane Michael, highlighting the need for such technology.
Rep. Neal Dunn said Panama City residents learned how to be resilient during Hurricane Michael but believes the new transmission line will be a godsend during future storms.
"We talk about infrastructure a lot in Washington, a lot of the time it's not really infrastructure ... this is infrastructure," Dunn said. "This is dependent, it really does pay off, brings prices down, makes the power grid more reliable. It makes it more resilient."
What is the FPL North Florida Resiliency Connection?
The new transmission line took three years from conception to operation. Silagy said the idea of building the line came after FPL acquired Gulf Power in 2019 and then had two separate systems to work with.
"One of the first things we asked ourselves is 'How can we have the system in Northwest Florida be more reliable and frankly work to get the bills down?' because historically Northwest Florida has paid the highest electric bills of all the investor-owned utilities in Florida," Silagy said. "This is one of the ways that we're working to try to get the bills down."
Multiple hurricanes and severe storms through the years has helped FPL officials craft their systems, he said.
"We have, unfortunately, responded to many hurricanes both inside Florida and outside of Florida and you do learn from every storm because every storm is different," Silagy said. "One of the things that we've learned is that there's really no substitute for adding a hardened system ... concrete and steel poles versus wood transmission poles is one example."
He added that FPL is strengthening all of its transmission poles in Florida, with 94% of its transmission poles now concrete and steel.
"We've installed smart meters throughout our system as well as hundreds of thousands of electronic devices on the grid itself," Silagy said. "So now the poles and the wires are talking to each other and talking to us."
FPL officials can now detect a system failure or an outage before it happens and send technicians for repairs, he said.
The transmission's effect on the environment is another huge plus, Silagy said.
"We're no longer relying on power coming in from out of state to feed this part of the state. We're no longer relying on coal plants from other parts of the country. We're bringing in clean burning fuel," he said.
Silagy said FPL officials expect the new technology to reduce electric bills across the Panhandle. And they have plans to bring them down further.
"Unfortunately, for many, many years ... the Panhandle has had the highest electric rates of all the industrial utilities," Silagy said. "I want to tell you that we are on a mission to change that ... I'm proud of the fact that FPL, our bills are 30% below the national average ... we're not satisfied though."
FPL officials plan to install 30 million solar panels by 2025 and eliminate its carbon emissions by 2045, he said.
"We're leading the way in that I don't even think of us as a utility company. ... We're really a technology company that delivers power," Silagy said. "Technology is changing so rapidly that I think we've only scratched the tip of the surface of being sure that we can actually put more technology to work to make the grid even more reliable, and to get bills down so our customers can spend their money on other things."