Part I: Living in Florida: A Legacy of Hurricanes
Florida is known for hurricanes1. As a teenage kid growing up in Miami, we never knew anything about the glory of snow days up North, but we did have Hurricane Days. They usually came in the worst month of Florida’s weather — September. That month, after all, came at the end of a long and hot Florida summer known to be famously muggy and wet. Late August and September are also the rainiest periods in the Liquid Sunshine State, and even worse, school started back before Labor Day.
Once in a while, soggy tropical storms would boil up in the Atlantic: huge patches of gray vapor-laden clouds ringed by thunderstorms eventually rotating into an ugly mess of howling wind and rain. Moving toward Florida, these might earn a few dismally hot and rainy days off from school — and every once in a while — often in August and September, they would morph into full-fledged hurricanes. Back then, hurricanes seemed like a big adventure. During Hurricane Betsy, I learned a 12 year old boy could sail at high speed on a skateboard by merely holding out a pillowcase. As a college-aged youth, there was the lure of hurricane parties, but by the turn of the century, these storms ceased to be fun. Category 5 Hurricane Andrew in 1992 largely destroyed Homestead and South Miami — a tempest so powerful and compact that it was like a huge tornadic wrecking ball that exploded everything it touched.
Hurricanes, of course, make up the hot and humid weather-related history of the subtropical peninsular state. With its long 1,100 miles of coastline exposed to the tepid waters of the Gulf Stream, it is unusually exposed to hurricanes moving west out of the Atlantic and north from the Gulf. With such exposure, there have been tragedies: the destructive Great Miami Hurricane of 1926, the 1935 Labor Day Hurricane that killed 408 in the Florida Keys, and Hurricane Andrew that largely destroyed South Dade City in 1992. Florida hurricanes have been featured in famous films (such as Key Largo, 1948) and even the storied sports team from the University of Miami. In 2004, three separate hurricanes (Charley, Frances, and Jeanne) pummeled Florida one after the other, destroying homes, flooding streets and cars, leaving large parts of the state an ugly tangle of destroyed trees and powerlines — and no power. No electricity in September in Florida means big misery — no refrigeration, no air conditioning, no hot water for showers, not even fans — no nothing. And these powerless rain-soaked days promised just the monotonous roar of generators from the forlorn attempt of sweaty hurricane survivors to run a refrigerator and charge cell phones. The saturated air inside and out was thick with moisture — like living in soup.
Last year in October 2016, it was Category 5 Hurricane Matthew, which made a dangerous approach off the Atlantic in Central Florida. Before grazing Space Coast, Florida, the monster 165 mph storm killed 603 in Haiti, Cuba, and the Dominican Republic. My family and I were chased from Cocoa Beach to friends in Gainesville only to have the massive storm raise havoc there. Over a million people lost power in Florida and Matthew accumulated $10 billion in damage in the US. After losing electricity in Gainesville, we returned to find no power for days in Cocoa Beach.
If 2016 with Hurricane Matthew was bad, 2017 with Hurricane Irma was much worse. The energy story in Florida in 2017 was dominated by the destructiveness of this Category 5 monster hurricane from September 10–12th. The huge storm was the strongest sustained hurricane in the Caribbean since records have been kept, maintaining its peak intensity of 185 mph for 36 hours. Irma tore off roofs, flooded homes, uprooted large trees, and flattened a large swath of the Florida Keys. Large sections of South Florida were transformed into a dangerous morass of flooded streets, splintered palms, and downed power lines. Brickell Avenue in downtown Miami was submerged in waist-deep water. As of November 2017, estimates of the storm’s damages in the US are greater than $65 billion – some estimates run as high as $200 billion – the fourth costliest hurricane on record. Further, when Irma struck, the Atlantic and the Gulf were boiling with tropical storms that were seemingly threatening to spin paths of destruction everywhere.
The image above, taken from a NASA satellite on September 8th, captures the punishing feel of the 2017 hurricane season. On the left in the Gulf is Category 2 Hurricane Katia, in the center the monster Hurricane Irma, and in the east Tropical Storm Jose, which would reach category 3 status just days later. It was the first time in history that two Atlantic hurricanes with winds greater than 150 mph spun through the Atlantic at the same time. A week later, Hurricane Maria would spawn from a marginal Category 1 hurricane and blow into a Category 5 cyclonic buzz saw in a span of just 18 hours. Maria would smash Puerto Rico in a catastrophic disaster of unprecedented dimension.
For the Florida utilities in her path, Hurricane Irma created enormous damage, wrecking the electrical distribution network from the Florida Keys all the way up beyond north Florida. At the height of the devastation from Irma, more than 7 million Florida customers were without power. More than 40% of homes in the state were blacked out; no lights, no electricity.
Over the preceding decade, FPL, Florida’s largest utility, had spent approximately $3 billion on projects to ready for the next big one: concrete poles, clearing vegetation near lines, and seeking to bury more critical power lines. “There is no such thing as a hurricane proof system,” FPL spokesperson Peter Robbins cautioned the Miami Herald. In spite of all that had been done, Florida’s largest utility lost power for 4.4 out of 4.9 million customers, or 90% of them. Many customers were without power for up to a week. Around the clock, indefatigable linemen and linewomen reset poles, re-strung lines, and replaced transformers, soon becoming heroes to millions of Floridians begging to see the air conditioner come back on.
Just the month before Irma, Hurricane Harvey crashed into Houston with a deluge of rainwater and catastrophic flooding damage. Monster hurricanes may be something to get used to as the earth’s seas are warming. While there appears no statistical connection between the frequency of hurricanes and the climate change–related warming of the Gulf and Tropical North Atlantic, the same cannot be said for the intensity and rate of hurricane intensification. “Global warming is tangibly increasing the hurricane risks around the world,” according to Dr. Kerry Emanuel, professor of atmospheric science at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT). “Climate Change, if unimpeded, will greatly increase the probability of extreme events.” Emanuel was referring to extreme events like Harvey, Irma and Maria — “a hurricane train.”
The underlying theory is unequivocal — warming oceans lead to larger, stronger, and more rapidly intensifying storms. Although hardly conclusive, a simple count of the most powerful storms seems to be have been increasing over the last century. There were eight Category 5 hurricanes recorded from 1931–1960 and then ten from 1961–1990. As of November 2017, we have a total of thirteen Category 5 storms with three years yet to go for the next 30-year period (1991-2020). More telling, however, is evidence from modern satellite observations, which show that hurricane intensity does seem to be increasing and in a statistically robust fashion.
Moreover, relative to earlier in the last century, in recent decades, hurricanes are tending to reach their peak intensity at higher latitudes, with the tracks trending more often toward Florida, Georgia, and the Carolinas.
While the factors influencing hurricane formation are intricate, involving periodic warming and cooling of Pacific waters (El Niño and La Niña) as well as prevailing wind shear and meteorological complexities such as the Madden-Julian oscillation, the fact of the matter is the sea surface temperatures — which have been rising over the last century — play an undeniable role in storm intensity and frequency. In fact, the ocean temperatures over the area where hurricanes form are the key factor.
As the earth has been warming in response to increasing levels of atmospheric carbon dioxide, this carries over to the seas. Indeed, a perilous threshold was reached recently when the World Meteorological Organization announced that CO2 concentrations rose at a record rate to reach 403 parts per million in 2016.
This is the highest level of the heat-trapping greenhouse gas in the last 800,000 years, including all of human history. What will happen at this level is anyone’s guess, but it seems certain we are in for more warming in the future.
By one estimation, the United Nations Environment Program’s (UNEP) Emissions Gap report, even if all of the pledges for the Paris Accord are met, we still appear to be in for 3.20°C (5.80°F) warming – which will just make things increasingly dangerous. All of the climate change–related data suggest greater potential intensity of hurricanes in the subtropics as the potential thermodynamic limit for hurricane intensity rises with temperature. Basic theory suggests a 3 m/s (7 mph) increase in average peak hurricane wind speeds for every 1°C (1.8°F) of sea surface temperature increase. Moreover, enthalpy-related physics (the Clausius-Clayeron equations) predict that with global warming, future hurricanes will produce substantially more rain (7% more water vapor per 1°C warming). Hurricane Harvey, the largest rain event in the US history, likely portends the wetter nature for hurricanes to come.
Meanwhile, we can see that ocean temperatures have a remarkable association with the formation of more powerful hurricanes in the Atlantic:
Since the 1970s, sea surface temperatures around the earth have increased by an average of ~0.60°C (1.10°F). They are estimated to have risen by about twice this much since pre-industrial times. Although half a degree doesn’t sound like much, this represents an enormous increase in ocean heat content, with large implications for the formation of tropical cyclones. A large subtropical hurricane is an ocean-borne, primarily latent heat engine, which operates at approximately 3 trillion watts. Not surprisingly, the prime incubation zone for tropical storms and hurricanes in the Tropical North Atlantic was the third warmest on record (only exceeded by 2005 and 2010). And adversely for Florida, the West Caribbean has had the strongest storms since they have been tracked.
Ocean surface temperatures in the path of Irma exceeded 86°F (30.0°C) at the time it approached Florida in September, and temperature in the Strait of Florida reached 90°F (32.2°C)on September 10th when Irma was intensifying as it bore down on Cudjoe Key.
These very high sea surface temperatures support the development of the very most powerful Category 5 storms. With warmer oceans, larger, wetter, and more powerful hurricanes will likely become more common, and given Florida’s storied history with them, we might as well be ready. Indeed, superimposing the tracks of hurricanes over the coastal state of Florida suggests a gauntlet of storms where strikes are inevitable. Even more, as Emanuel of MIT cautions, “with climate change, past risk may not be a good indication for future risk.”
In other words, things may get worse.
In fact, we know something of the early prospects 2018: on November 9th, NOAA announced the status of ENSO — the El Niño-Southern Oscillation. Result: the La Niña weather pattern has arrived and will persist through a forecast warmer winter. Statistically speaking, La Niña means a much greater likelihood of more hurricanes hitting Florida. Twice as many hurricanes have impacted Florida in La Niña years (28) compared to El Niño years (13). In other words, get ready.
Given the humid weather and extensive post-storm water damage after Irma, many were without electricity for days, some much more than a week. Lacking refrigeration, millions of dollars of food became so much rotten garbage, communications were disrupted, dehumidifiers sat dormant for lack of power in water-soaked homes, and the loss of air conditioning made for profound misery for millions. Residents were condemned to opening windows to the hot stagnant outdoor air, while serenaded by noisy gas-powered generators. Lying in bed sweating, many slept fitfully in the still humid air, worried through the night of how they might forage the next day’s gasoline and water. Some desperate souls, unable to sleep, sat in a running car for a few precious minutes to savor the relief of air conditioning.
These horrid conditions — a humanitarian disaster — are still ongoing in Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands in the ruinous wake of Hurricane Maria. As of this writing, two months after Maria struck as a Category 5, hundreds have died and more than half the beleaguered residents of Puerto Rico – millions – are without electricity. Many are lacking clean drinking water.
In Florida, the damage was terrible enough. Big Pine Key was devastated and a total of 90 in the state were killed. Tragically, 14 elderly victims died in an overheated Hollywood Hills nursing home without electric power to keep the air conditioning on.
While all utilities make power restoration to hospitals a first priority, should not our nursing homes, assisted living locations, hurricane shelters, and community centers have solar systems with battery backup that should allow our citizens to survive in safety in the wake of natural disasters like Hurricane Irma?
Yes, these systems would be more expensive than gas or diesel generators, but wouldn’t include the need for staff to go on daily hunts for sparse gasoline supplies. (As late as September 12, 2017, after Hurricane Irma departed, 43% of Florida gas stations reported they were dry, with the situation particularly bad in hard-hit Dade County.) Moreover, if utilities installed such systems on critical facilities (medical clinics, nursing homes, hurricane shelters, and community centers), they would benefit from year-round clean power generation from such PV battery systems while providing significantly greater resilience to our communities in the inevitable instance of power loss after hurricanes. How would we know the roofs and PV systems might survive? Due to a good amount of research that we’ll cover later, we know a lot more about that topic from studies of the survivability of roofing systems in the wake of the spate of hurricanes in 2004 (spoiler alert: good: hipped metal roofs; bad: ridge vents and big overhangs).
Even as Irma swirled her misery toward the Alabama-Georgia border, FPL and the other Florida utilities unleashed a massive workforce: a fleet of hundreds of trucks running 24/7 and an army-sized workforce of 28,000 line crews from all over the US. The fielded work crews worked around the clock in difficult weather and dangerous conditions to restore power. In a feat of coordination, a week later, by September 22th, FPL announced that it had restored power to essentially all of its nearly 5 million customers.
Of course, the costs for such massive hurricane recovery efforts are not free. For the last year, FPL customers have been paying an average of $3.36 per month for 1000 kWh ($0.0036/kWh listed as Storm Charge on the bill) to recover from Hurricane Matthew in October 2016. Now, before Hurricane Matthew is paid for, FPL customers can anticipate paying anew for the even larger charges for Hurricane Irma. Currently, the expected charge begins at $4.00 per 1000 kWh beginning in March 2018 and increases to $5.50, with the charges not ending until 2020.
If you wish to know what climate change might bode for Florida and its energy picture, look no further than the $1.3 billion repair bill after Irma. These charges — fully half a cent per kilowatt-hour — will continue for three years through 2020, and for that not to increase, we’ll need to have no further storms and storm surcharges for the next three years. In March 2018, we’ll be just done paying for Matthew when we get an increase in the storm charge to cover Irma. So, the average single family residential customer using 15,000 kWh annually will be paying about $200 over three years to repair the ravages of Irma. With the potential for increasingly dangerous storms, years without that half a cent per kWh storm charge may become the exception rather than the rule: storm charges in perpetuity.
With storm charges at half a cent per kWh and $5 per month, the idea of slashing utility energy efficiency R&D budgets, at a cost of only half a cent extra per month, looks short-sighted and silly. As we will see, this is exactly what happened in 2014. If we’re really serious about reducing greenhouse gas emissions (and we should in sea level rise and hurricane at risk Florida) and increasing our community resilience in the wake of hurricanes, such cuts are not in Florida’s best interest. The technology for power generation and consumption has been changing rapidly over the last decade and Florida needs to be at the forefront. “In Florida,” observed George Cavros of the Southern Alliance for Clean Energy, “the old utility business model is colliding with 21st century technologies.”
Yet FPL and the other Florida utilities did a remarkable job restoring power after the most recent hurricane. Even before Hurricane Irma had left Florida, FPL had turned the lights back on for a million customers and fully another million customers reconnected the following day. Eric Silagy, the president and CEO of FPL, was fully accurate when he boasted, “We pulled together and completed the largest restoration of the largest amount of people by any one utility in US history.” Fully true, the FPL accomplishment was legendary.
And anyone who has experienced the hot misery of a post hurricane world without power knows that Florida was grateful for FPL’s efficiency in restoring modern civilization.
At home in Cocoa Beach, we were without power for a week. Although I have a 6.5 kW solar electric (PV) system, I did not have one of the new inverters that allow you to use the power during the day when the sun is up. (In the series to come, I’ll help you to pick out the new ones with that ability). Nor did I have a battery backup system that would allow us to “island” the power and keep the entire household going in spite of the grid failure. That will be changing next year when I install backup electrical storage — as many of you with PV systems should be contemplating. Yes, you can install a generator for less than a $1,000, but as seen in Puerto Rico, what happens when you no longer have gasoline easily available? Long lines at best. Welcome to the brave new world of 21st century climate change in the Southeastern US.
Yet, I was lucky another way. As I have a 7-year-old Chevy Volt plug-in electric vehicle (10 kWh battery), I was able to use an outboard 1,000 watt inverter with that to charge phones, power tools, illuminate lamps, and run fans at night (double amen). That’s another advantage of plug-in hybrid electric automobiles that we’ll get into in the series — a built-in battery and quiet generator! Still, we were oh-so-grateful when the grid power came back on the evening of Saturday, September 16th.
Yet, as immensely appreciative as Floridians are to utilities like FPL for restoring electric power, the responsibility of the regulated utilities, too, is to provide citizens with the cheapest and cleanest energy for a vibrant future. And in doing that, should we not also help our citizens to have more durable and reliable power for emergencies for our critical medical facilities, nursing homes, hurricane shelters, and community centers?
Even more, should we not also help make this kind of robust, disaster-proof power more widely available to the average Florida homeowner?
Such systems with solar electric power production with battery backup are now widely available, but most homeowners know nothing about them and investor-owned Florida utilities are quietly hostile to rooftop solar. Meanwhile, the citizens of the Sunshine State need solar with battery backup storage for their homes — and it’s now within reach.
Although real progress is being made worldwide relative to greater energy efficiency and greenhouse gas reductions with a resilient electric grid, in at-risk-Florida, sadly, we fall short. We could be doing much better and providing real energy leadership in a state perilously at risk for sea level rise and damage from more powerful hurricanes.
And the obvious question: why aren’t we?
Acknowledgements: The author is thankful for review from the following for Part I: Dr. Kerry Emanuel (MIT), Dr. Michael Mann (Pennsylvania State University) and Zeke Hausfather (University of California, Berkeley).
1Jay Barnes and Neil Frank, Florida’s Hurricane History, University of North Carolina Press, 1998. For Florida’s climate particulars: Morton D. Winsberg, “Florida’s Climate,” Florida State University, prepared for the National Data Climatic Center: http://climatecenter.fsu.edu/images/fcc/climateofflorida.pdf. For a visual impression of Florida’s vulnerability relative to hurricane paths: Larzaro Gamio, “100 year of hurricanes hitting and missing Florida, visualized,” The Washington Post, October 7, 2016.