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Duke Energy Florida president answers questions about utility's response to Irma

ST. PETERSBURG — After more than a week since Hurricane Irma knocked out power to millions of Floridians, Duke Energy announced it will finish its restoration efforts Tuesday.

Duke Energy Florida's president Harry Sideris apologized for power not being restored sooner, but said Irma did more damage than his analysts predicted. The utility planned for 1 million of its Florida customers to lose power, but the number was closer to 1.3 million.

"Irma was a monster for us," Sideris said at a Tuesday news conference alongside St. Petersburg mayor Rick Kriseman, both men standing in front of a pile of storm debris. "A lot of this debris ended up in our power lines."

Sideris also answered questions about the company's communication and response and what it will do in the future to improve the its performance during the next storm. Here's an edited version of some of the answers he gave at the news conference.

The computer system that alerts customers when a truck should be at their house to restore their power went down, Sideris said. Duke dispatchers couldn't tell customers when the trucks would arrive in their neighborhoods or send out test alerts about the progress they were making restoring power. He said Duke could only offer estimates about when it could restore power to the whole area, not individual neighborhoods.

Duke missed several self-imposed deadlines for power restoration in Pinellas County. Why?

Sideris said Duke crews surveyed the damage and plugged that information into computer models that calculated the number of hours needed to make those repairs. But, he said, much of the work was in backyards and alley ways, where vegetation was heavier and access with bucket trucks was limited. The repairs required more workers than expected to physically climb up power poles.

"Our initial assessments were that we could do this area a little bit faster," he said. "We ran into heavier damage than we thought."

Despite the lament about the vegetation, Sideris defended the company's tree maintenance.

"We have a very robust tree trimming program" that's in accordance with state regulation, he said.

State Sen. Jack Latvala, a Clearwater Republican who is running for governor, suggested utilities should allocate money they were going to contribute to politicians to improvements to power lines and other parts of the grid. Will Duke do that?

No. Sideris said Duke's plans for capital improvements are already set, indicating the company wouldn't be reallocating money earmarked for political contributions. Those improvements include expanding "undergrounding," which means running electrical lines underground rather than along poles, the executive said. And the company plans to roll out automated meters next year, which, he said, will make it easier for the company to track power outages and for customers to track their usage.

Why did customers receive bills two or three times more than their normal bills?

Duke is required to bill customers each month, Sideris said, and with meter readers unable to make it out during the hurricane, the company had to estimate. He said when estimates are necessary, an algorithm considers things like a customer's past usage and weather that month. But, he said, this time a multiplier was mistakenly added to the algorithm, and that steps were put in place to keep that from happening in the future. In the meantime, Sideris said, Duke has told customers to ignore those exorbitant bills and wait for a more accurate one.

What's your response to Kriseman publicly lambasting Duke on Facebook on Friday for missing its deadline?

"We understood that people are frustrated," Sideris said. "Power is such a vital piece of everybody's life and when its 93 degrees and you have no air conditioning, everybody gets frustrated."

Contact Josh Solomon at (813) 909-4613 or jsolomon@tampabay.com. Follow @josh_solomon15.

Duke Energy Florida president answers questions about utility's response to Irma 09/19/17 [Last modified: Tuesday, September 19, 2017 6:57pm]
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