Cold weather causes scattered power outages

Ashley Daly, 22, makes sure her 10-month-old daughter, Mackenzie Valentine, is bundled up as they play at a playground in Gulfport on Wednesday. With them are friends Christina Baker, 3, back left, and Kylee Banks, 2, back right.

LARA CERRI | Times

Ashley Daly, 22, makes sure her 10-month-old daughter, Mackenzie Valentine, is bundled up as they play at a playground in Gulfport on Wednesday. With them are friends Christina Baker, 3, back left, and Kylee Banks, 2, back right.

Here's what may have happened to your electricity this week:

In Florida, land of suntans, people are not used to being cold. So when the temperature takes a prolonged nosedive, everyone simultaneously cranks the heat for some sweet refuge.

But if you're the electric company, try handling the pressure.

"If everyone is doing that at the same time, that will place a larger strain on the system, so you may find a piece here and there down," said Tim Leljedal, a spokesman for Progress Energy. "There can be some scattered power outages when it's cold outside."

The lights-out scenario has popped up sporadically around the area this week. And the weather forecast suggests the cold won't be letting up anytime soon.

About 3,300 Progress Energy customers in northeast St. Petersburg lost power about 9:15 p.m. Tuesday after a usage surge caused strain, officials said. Almost everyone had power back within an hour.

A connector linking power lines was overworked.

"If that's not the worst, it's probably among the worst" outages for Progress Energy, said Leljedal. "For the most part, we've been able to produce and deliver the power customers need during the cold spell."

In a similar instance Monday, a transmission line separated from a piece holding it to a power pole in North Tampa. That morning, 5,500 customers lost power, but Tampa Electric Co. spokesman Rick Morera said the problem may or may not have been due to the weather.

"It's hard to tell," he said. "There is a possibility that it could have been weather related. We don't know. … The rest of this week, we've been doing fairly well. We may have had a couple hundred scattered outages around our service territory."

Things are different in Florida than in, say, northern Pennsylvania. Houses here — many of them drafty bungalows with light insulation — tend to be more efficient at staying cool than at getting warm. And it takes more energy to bring a house from 30 degrees up to 70, versus from 90 down to 70, which happens most of the sweaty year.

In 1989, Florida's power system went kaput in what was called the Great Christmas Freeze. Power plants were shut down for maintenance when a cold spell came through. People scrambled to use their heat amid a shortage. To cope, companies created rolling blackouts, passing outages from one area to another.

That's not a fear right now, power companies say.

"In the time since that occurred, we have made major improvements in the way we produce and deliver power to our customers," said Leljedal.

Weather in general has shaped up the power system in Florida. New government regulations demand increased inspection periods and wind standards, ensuring that equipment gets upgraded and replaced more often.

"In response to the hurricanes a couple of years back, there were several initiatives that we took with the power companies to strengthen their systems, to harden the grid and make it more resilient to inclement weather," said Todd Brown, a spokesman for Florida's Public Service Commission. "It's definitely a stronger, more resilient system than it was."

Companies can also buy extra power from other sources, which TECO has done this week, Morera said.

"We knew at the beginning of this week that (Wednesday) morning was going to have a high load of customer demand based on the weather," he said.

Customers should be aware how they're using energy, he said. At one home that TECO workers visited during an audit Tuesday, the fireplace flue was open. All the hot air was going right out through the roof.

Times staff writer Kim Wilmath contributed to this report. Stephanie Hayes can be reached at shayes@sptimes.com or (727) 893-8857.

Cold weather causes scattered power outages 01/06/10 [Last modified: Thursday, January 7, 2010 8:17am]

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