Ian’s mass outage meets the struggling US supply chain

“This is a catastrophic storm,” he added. “There will be catastrophic damage across the entire system,” he said.

Adding to the challenges is a nationwide shortage of critical electrical equipment, such as certain types of transformers, that crews may need to restore power to parts of Florida.

Wait times to get some supplies are now as long as two to three years, said Joy Ditto, executive director of the American Public Power Association. That could mean a struggle to source the parts needed for the Ian recovery, forcing providers to drain their limited backup supplies or swap equipment with other utilities.

FPL’s Silagy said his company has equipment on hand to handle this hurricane. Still, Ditto said she worries the US network will be even more vulnerable when the next storm or cyber attack hits and there aren’t enough components to go around.

“Of course, we will prioritize restoration to existing ones [infrastructure] as much as possible,” she said, “but you’re just emptying stocks elsewhere. If people are willing to give you those transformers elsewhere in the country, but then they get a winter storm, you’re essentially robbing Peter to pay Paul.”

Other utilities have raised red flags about the supply crunch.

APPA and the National Rural Electric Cooperative Association wrote to Energy Secretary Jennifer Granholm in May urging her to temporarily waive the energy conservation standard for manufacturers in an effort to save steel.

On average, wait times to secure critical materials increased 429 percent between 2020 and 2022, according to APPA — from two to three months to about a year. A quarter of the group’s members reported a “high risk” of running out of at least one critical component.

“For some time, we have raised issues with the supply chain,” NRECA senior vice president of government relations Louis Finkel said via email. “Obviously, a major storm has the potential to create complications. The supply chain challenges that the industry has faced could become a complicating factor in energy recovery, but it’s too early to know.”

Ditto said the shortage has persisted even after President Joe Biden invoked the Defense Production Act in June to try to speed up production of clean energy components.

Scott Aaronson, senior vice president of safety and preparedness at the Edison Electric Institute, which represents for-profit utilities, said in an email that the industry is working “to prioritize and address short-term utility constraints to respond during the hurricane and wildfire season.”

“These efforts help ensure we are ready to share materials with businesses affected by Hurricane Ian if needed,” he said.

Silagy said during the press call that FPL had stockpiled materials and equipment “many, many, many months ago.”

“We have secured those resources. We will implement them throughout our service area,” he said. “The road ahead is going to be challenging. It’s not going to be an easy storm to recover from. But again, we’re prepared to do it.”

FPL and other electric companies have deployed more than 25,000 linemen and 27,000 power restoration personnel across the state to begin restoration and rebuilding efforts once the storm has resolved. FPL alone has 19,000 workers in place, Silagy said.

Utilities say it’s still too early to know how long it will take to restore power. It took the Louisiana Gulf Coast weeks to recover violent winds from hurricane Ida last year, despite billions of dollars spent on grid hardening. Silagy compared Ian to Hurricane Charley in 2004, another Category 4 storm that hit southwest Florida and spread across the state, leaving power not restored to thousands of customers for weeks. (However, Ian has a much wider footprint.)

Power managers stressed that power can’t be restored — and rebuilding can’t happen — until the storm subsides and workers can safely begin repairing electrical lines and other critical equipment.

In that sense, a faster-moving storm can be better for recovery times, Ditto said, versus slow-moving storms that linger for days.

“The sooner it goes away, the more frankly, the better, because then you can get out there and do your work to restore power or do other damage assessments and recovery in other areas as well,” she said.

Silagy asked customers to be prepared “for extended power outages” and recommended that elderly customers or others who may struggle without power for extended periods of time to “assess their own needs.”

He also warned that some homes or businesses or neighborhoods could see longer periods of outages depending on the damage.

“There will be many, many cases where it is simply not safe to re-energize a home or business because it has been structurally damaged,” he said.

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