An inside look at the smart technology that keeps the lights on
January 16, 2024
Rick Henszey and his fellow power distribution operators are the first ones to detect and respond to power outages.

Pensacola, Fla. - In the wee morning hours, a severe thunderstorm is making its way across Northwest Florida. A lightning strike splits an old oak tree; half of the tree falls away from the main trunk and lands on a Florida Power & Light Company (FPL) distribution circuit. The nearest utility pole breaks off at the base, and broken crossarms, electrical cutouts and a transformer fall to the ground.  

Immediately, innovative grid technology kicks in. A pole-mounted recloser – like a breaker – installed on the grid upstream of the fallen tree senses the electrical fault and starts opening and closing automatically, attempting to clear the fault.  

If power outages are caused by a tree limb contacting a power line, the reclosure mechanism can oftentimes restore power. In this scenario, the recloser is unable to clear the fault and locks out power to the site of the broken pole and downed lines, as designed. More than 500 customers are without power. 

That’s when distribution system operators (DSO), like Rick Henszey, in Pensacola, spring into action. Sometimes, even before emergency services are notified, these skilled individuals are already directing FPL service technicians to the scene of the leaning pole.  

The service technicians report the damage to the electrical distribution system to the DSO, and the DSO determines the necessary steps to ensure the site is electrically safe for customers, lineworkers and emergency responders.  

Henszey, who is one of 14 DSO responsible for operating the electrical distribution system in FPL’s Northwest region, explained the vital role he and his colleagues play to ensure FPL’s 500,000 customers in the region receive reliable electrical service.  

“Whether it's during normal, abnormal or emergency conditions, our primary objective is to ensure the safety of the field personnel and line crews, while maximizing the reliability of the electrical service we provide to our customers,” he said.  

They work 12-hour shifts in a secured storm-hardened center monitoring the grid and coordinating power restoration efforts. Their operating authority over the FPL electrical distribution system extends from the output of the large stepdown transformers in the substations, through thousands of miles of distribution circuits and hundreds of thousands of utility poles across Northwest Florida, all the way to the electric meter on the side of the customer's home.  

“Each DSO works in harmony with other behind-the-scenes professionals to ensure power reliability,” Henszey says.  

Alex Zambrano, senior manager, control center operations in Pensacola, supports Northwest Florida.  

“In addition to lineworkers who customers see coming to the rescue, there is a multitude of dedicated individuals behind the scenes to ensure that when customers flip that switch, their lights will come on,” Zambrano said. 

How FPL's team collaborates to effectively handle power outages: 

  • Service technicians provide vital information that the DSO requires to implement emergency switching needed to isolate the affected portion of the distribution circuit and make the scene safe for responding line crews.  

  • DSO dispatches a line crew to work through the rainy night to remove and replace the broken pole and rebuild the damaged portion of the electrical distribution circuit. 

  • The DSO evaluates the unaffected portion of the electrical distribution circuit, seeking ways to safely reduce the size of the customer outage.  

  • Switching strategies are developed and implemented to restore power to as many customers as possible, while maintaining the safety of the pole replacement crews.    

  • Once all repair work is complete, the DSO will work with the service technicians and line crews, as needed, to restore power to all customers. Then, the lineworkers leave the scene.  

  • The DSO takes the final step to alert any telephone, cable or internet services that may have equipment on the broken pole.  

DSO resumes monitoring the operation of the FPL electrical distribution system ... until the phone rings again.