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New tools help Duke prep for ‘extraordinary’ hurricane season

Mark Parker

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Mark Ward, a Duke Energy Florida Distribution Control Center supervisor, explained the importance of new technology Wednesday. Photos by Mark Parker.

Duke Energy Florida officials provided rare public access to a secretive control center in St. Petersburg before the 2023 hurricane season; they showcased a decidedly more visible facility Wednesday.

The utility formally unveiled a new 45-foot Mobile Command Center (MCC) it deploys to areas devastated by storms or other catastrophes. Up to 18 officials can direct operations, assist neighboring utilities and help ensure quicker power restoration times from the self-contained, rapid-response vehicle.

In August 2023, Duke deployed the MCC to north Florida in Hurricane Idalia’s aftermath. It could see even more use in 2024, as the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Agency (NOAA) recently predicted an “extraordinary” Atlantic hurricane season.

“We have seen storms, in the past few years, go from a Category 1 to a 5 in less than 24 hours,” said Duke Florida president Melissa Seixas. “That is also why we have to perfect the ability to move, check and adjust, as we like to say, very quickly.”

Melissa Seixas, president of Duke Florida, addresses media members in front of the company’s Mobile Command Center.

Hurricane season begins Saturday, June 1. NOAA expects up to 25 named storms and four to seven with winds topping 111 mph.

Max Thompson, lead meteorologist for Duke, said rapid intensification has made forecasting more challenging. However, he noted that artificial intelligence (AI) assists those efforts.

“We have developed models … to help us see outage impacts, the customer impacts and infrastructure damage, as well,” Thompson added. “I think that also helps to kind of bookend the risks on the worst-case and best-case scenarios.”

The MCC allows the St. Petersburg-based company to put boots on the ground in rural areas. It also directly connects with Duke’s “eyes in the sky,” its Distribution Control Center (DCC).

Highly trained staffers inside the nondescript facility ensure over four million people and two million commercial customers statewide continue receiving electricity. The centrally located, heavily secured building (address withheld) functions like a government’s emergency operation center during storms.

The DCC features showers, kitchens, bunks – anything one might need for an extended stay during dangerous conditions. Its operators work rotating 12-hour shifts and conduct a thorough technological stress test before June 1.

Mark Ward, DCC supervisor, said the facility’s staff ensures the electric grid’s reliability “is where it needs to be.” He said self-healing technology allows them to condense what was once a two-hour outage into a 30-minute inconvenience for 400 customers rather than 2,000.

“It’s big for our customers, it’s big for our local businesses,” Ward told the Catalyst. “We say we’re a technology company that supplies power. Because that’s what we are – we’re big into tech.”

He explained that Duke is now maximizing the systems’ benefits. That includes the self-healing tech, which automatically detects outages and allows operators to reroute electricity before receiving customer calls.

The nascent system helped save over 200 million outage minutes through Hurricanes Ian, Nicole and Idalia. The technology assists over 70% of Florida and 75% of Pinellas County customers.

The Mobile Command Center features several workstations that allow Duke officials to direct operations and communicate with the Distribution Control Center.

Ward said the system also helps provide residents with immediate and frequent timeline updates. Communications specialist Audrey Stasko said automation will continue fostering efficiency.

She noted that Duke once deployed workers to inspect every line. In addition to the self-healing system, Duke now uses drones rather than helicopters to discern damage. While someone must still review that footage, Stasko said AI would “one day, not far away” automate the entire process.

However, human capital still propels the utility’s resiliency and recovery efforts. Seixas said Duke has storm-hardened over 40,000 poles since 2021, and 48% of primary power lines are underground.

The company has recently completed over 4,000 miles of tree trimming maintenance around distribution lines and 600 miles of planned transmission work. Line technician Matt Richardson said the job provides “a huge sense of pride” that outweighs the often harsh conditions and time away from family.

“There’s no word for it, and I say there’s no word for it because it’s painful to see the destruction after a storm,” Richardson added. “But you know you’re there when people need you the most. You’re helping rebuild lives.”

He said customers “love us after a big storm.” However, Richardson noted that gratitude is typically elusive when crews make noise in backyards while completing maintenance under blue skies. “Just know that we’re there because of our commitment to provide safe, reliable service that you depend on 24/7,” he said.

 

 

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