Since 2006, following two years during which the state was pummeled by major storms, the state’s investor-owned utility companies, including Northwest Florida’s Gulf Power, have spent billions to harden their energy grids and develop technologies that will help them better respond following a weather event like Hurricane Irma.

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Although Hurricane Irma may provide a test far sterner than anyone might have imagined, Florida’s utility companies have been preparing for a decade to better meet challenges presented by tropical weather.

Since 2006, following two years when the state was pummeled by major storms, the state’s investor-owned utility companies, including Northwest Florida’s Gulf Power, have spent billions of dollars to harden their energy grids and develop technologies to help them better respond following a weather event like Hurricane Irma.

Much of the work has come at the urging of the state’s Public Service Commission.

After the storms of 2004-05 the PSC began requiring investor-owned utility companies to protect delivery systems and find ways to improve the efficiency with which they restore power during widespread outages.

“It’s impressive seeing the level of preparation,” Jimmy Patronis, Florida’s chief financial officer and a former PSC member, said Thursday. “We are so much further ahead than we were.”

Patronis said requiring “active vegetation plans” for the removal of debris from around power lines and replacing old wooden power poles with those made of stronger wood or concrete, are among the “good, common sense,” policies and procedures that have made a difference.

Also, technology has become so sophisticated companies today know where outages are occurring and are using computers to confirm power has been restored, Patronis said. The IOU’s are even, in some cases, able to detect problems before outages occur and prevent them.

“These are all things we need to get back to normalcy,” following a major storm, he said.

Florida Power and Light, one of the nation’s largest publicly regulated power companies, serves customers in 35 of Florida’s 67 counties. Its power grid stretches along the Atlantic Coast from Miami to Jacksonville, and on the Gulf of Mexico from Naples to Sarasota. Its customers will be the first impacted by Irma if the storm makes landfall in South Florida as expected.

The company has invested almost $3 billion to harden its grid and expand its technology, spokesman Chris McGrath said. In Daytona Beach alone it has installed more than 100 concrete power poles capable of withstanding 145 mph winds.

Technological additions include the installation of 4.9 million “smart” meters that eliminate the need for manual checks by allowing Florida Power and Light technicians to read meters with an iPad from a bucket truck, McGrath said.

Gulf Power boasted in a news release Wednesday of investing more than $225 million in storm-hardening projects across the region.

“We have done significant hardening of our infrastructure,” company spokesman Jeff Rogers said. “Compared to where we were, we’re in much better shape.”

The company has also invested in shoring up substations and procuring technology capable of detecting problems and restoring power more quickly than had been possible in the past.

“Gulf Power customers are enjoying fewer outages than in any time in recent history. In fact, investments in the power grid have improved reliability for the utility’s 455,000 customers,” Gulf Power spokesman Rick DelaHaya said the news release. “Making sure our customers can count on us for reliable energy is very important, and the investments we continue to make in our system are paying off.”

Duke Energy, which also serves customers in 35 Florida counties and major cities such as Orlando and St. Petersburg, has invested about $2.4 billion to strengthen its grid. It has replaced 802,000 power poles, according to spokeswoman Ana Gibbs. Like Gulf Power and Florida Power and Light, the company has invested in systems capable of detecting and solving problems in the grid.

Hurricane Irma is expected to make landfall this weekend at the southern tip of Florida, likely as a Category 4 storm.

The storm, with winds presently measured about 175 mph, could maintain major hurricane strength as it tracks north for nearly the length of the state, if it stays over land that long, Jane Hollingsworth, a National Weather Service meteorologist based in Tallahassee, told reporters Wednesday at a news conference.

“The current estimate is that if it does hit southern Florida and then it starts to track up, either up the spine of Florida or one side or the other, is that it would start to weaken, but probably not until it gets to central-northern Florida, to potentially a Category 3,” the News Service of Florida quoted Hollingsworth as saying. “It's not going to be weakening extremely rapidly.”

With Northwest Florida no longer appearing as a probable target for Hurricane Irma, Gulf Power, while prepared for a pivot, is readying to help in other areas of the state as needed, DelaHaya said in the news release.

“Our crews are ready in case it does shift toward us or if we are needed to help with restoration efforts for other energy providers,” he said.

With the full available resources of its parent company, Southern Company, Gulf Power could count on almost 1,700 crew members, including line workers, tree trimming crews and support personnel, the release said.

Gulf Power crews haven’t dealt with a hurricane in their own coverage area in more than 10 years, but have been called to assist in 14 other states, including those impacted by Hurricane Sandy, the release said.

“Our Gulf Power team trains and prepares for these storm events that have such a large impact on our communities and our customers' lives,” DelaHaya said. “Our team works hard to cultivate what we call a ‘culture of preparedness.’ This culture has served our communities well in previous successful storm restoration events.”