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Frosty Floridians Sue Power Company

WEST PALM BEACH (CN) - Record energy demand in Palm Beach County overloaded Florida Power and Light's electrical system, knocking out power to 25,000 homes during one of the coldest weeks on record, according to a class action in state court.

The class claims the power company's transformers couldn't handle the heightened load, putting the freeze on Floridians.

During the weekend of Jan. 9, when most of the power outages occurred, temperatures in Florida plunged to record lows. Farmers scrambled to salvage their orange crops, and Floridians saw snow as far south as Orlando for the first time in 20 years.

FPL says the demand on its circuits was unprecedented.

"On [Jan. 9], customer demand on FPL's electrical system reached an all-time high of 24,354 megawatt-hours. This was the third demand record in as many days and far surpassed the all-time summer peak of 22,361 megawatt-hours set on Aug. 17, 2005. Through it all, FPL maintained power to an average of more than 99 percent of our customers while operating at near-maximum capacity," FPL said in a statement provided exclusively to Courthouse News.

The power company, which serves more than 4.5 million customers, says it dispatched 1,300 workers to repair transformers that had failed during the demand spike.

The 25,000 customers inconvenienced by the outages represent 0.5 percent of its client accounts, FPL said.

But some residents who were left without heat, many of whom are unaccustomed to the freezing temperatures, say the lapse in service was unforgiveable.

In their complaint in Palm Beach County Circuit Court, the class claims FPL's transformers are "old, undersized, or otherwise inadequate."

Class attorney Scott Gelfand of Coral Springs claims that poorly mapped power grids led to extended blackouts. FPL struggled to identify which electrical subsystems were linked to the affected homes, leaving residents without electricity for days, according to the complaint.

"Homeowners needlessly endured prolonged inconvenience and damage to their property," the complaint states.

FPL called it a "frivolous lawsuit ... utterly without merit."

"This type of complaint falls under the jurisdiction of the Public Service Commission, which just this morning commended the hard work of FPL employees during this record-breaking cold streak," FPL spokeswoman Sarah Marmion said.

Recent class-action suits alleging that weather-caused power outages were the result of FPL's negligence have floundered.

After Hurricane Wilma wiped out power to more than two-thirds of FPL's customers for weeks in the fall of 2005, Fort Lauderdale businessman Peter Rabbino led a class action blaming the power company for failing to storm-proof its substations.

His attorneys sought a judgment that would have forced FPL to revamp its power systems, but a Broward County judge rejected the claims, deferring to the authority of the Florida Public Service Commission.

The court faces new questions with Gelfand's suit, however. While the Rabbino suit tested FPL's liability in protecting its infrastructure from damage directly caused by inclement weather, Gelfand's suit is challenging FPL's legal obligation to maintain sufficient capacity.

Neither Broward County nor Palm Beach County courts has specifically ruled that FPL has a responsibility to provide headroom for spikes in energy demand.

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