Q&A of the Day – Underground Power Lines

Today’s entry: Two days after Ian hit the Treasure Coast as a tropical storm, FPL was able to restore my power. Two days. I wondered why FPL has not buried the power lines. I remember a huge outcry, demand, in fact, after the hurricanes of 2004 and 2005 that they do so. Some were without power for weeks after Hurricanes Charley, Frances, Ivan and Jeanne. FPL began, under this pressure, their Secure Power Line Program. I am beginning to wonder if it is lip service. The program was not launched until 2018. I am curious to know what they were doing those 13 years in between. According to FPL.com as of 2021 they had “completed about 600 of these neighborhood projects”. Just seems like they could have done a lot more. I guess they took those 13 years to assess and “[prioritize] neighborhoods that have had the most history of outages…” 

I get that this is a huge project. But also consider saving the lives of residents and utility workers from electrocution. We are paying $2.00 every month on every bill toward line burial. FPL has 5 million customers in Florida. That translates to $120,000,000 every year to go to this task. I have to wonder how much headway they are making in an effort that would immediately affect so many versus their dedication to building a solar empire with farther off and effects which may not pay off as well or as certainly as burying power lines would. 

Bottom Line: Today’s note came on the heels of Wednesday’s Q&A pertaining to how underground power lines and solar performed during hurricane Ian. In case you missed it – the short answer is exceptionally well. The reliability of underground power lines was five times better during Ian than overhead power lines. The frustration expressed by today’s listener is understandable. Who expects to be without power for two days when only experiencing tropical storm force conditions? And why is it that some have underground power lines, while others don’t? The prioritization question is relevant as well. As I mentioned in my top 3 takeaways on Wednesday, undergrounding should be the priority of every power provider in the state of Florida. And could it be that the 2030 solar project by FPL is slowing them down? Let’s dive in.  

In today’s note correctly points out that initial discussions of undergrounding power lines began after the historic ‘04-’05 hurricane cycle in which Florida was struck by four hurricanes commonly leading to power outages of up to two weeks. It also correctly addresses the financial considerations involved. In answering why FPL began evaluating the undergrounding of power lines over a decade before their Storm Secure Pilot Program got off the ground, or under the ground as the case happens to be, comes down to a combination of planning, money and regulation. Creating a master plan for the undergrounding of power lines for a utility company the size of FPL is obviously a considerable process. It’s one which is complicated by two key considerations. Once a viable plan is developed by engineers, which can take years to complete, regulators have to approve the plan – including the costs associated with it. Those realities are keys in this conversation. 

FPL, and any Florida utility company undergrounding lines, not only had to create a viable plan that would be economically viable, but it would also have to be ratified by the Florida Public Service Commission and be approved by local governments as needed as well. That’s at the crux of the reason why it took so long to get the projects off the ground. The initial assessments showed estimated costs of over $1 million per mile to convert the power supply. It could take a utility company years to create a plan that could be rejected by the FPSC. In general, there was a lot of pushbacks at the idea of significant assessments on power bills for undergrounding – especially during the years surrounding the Great Recession. That really slowed the process down. Then you had a period of relative tropical peace in our state for several years. That made it less of a front-burner issue and as you pointed out, the solar project became a focus of FPL in particular. But following the 2016 & 2017 hurricane seasons, FPL reengaged with what would be a tiered 10-year plan. Under what they called their Storm Secure Underground Pilot Program, they’d underground power lines based on data specifically derived from the impact of hurricanes: Matthew in 2016 and Irma in 2017. Irma, was especially instructive given that it impacted both coasts and was the largest power outage event in Florida’s history.  

The Florida Public Service Commission signed off on a plan that would start with select neighborhoods, which were among the most impacted, and using the knowledge of those projects, could be used for larger scale projects. Still, each of these projects would have to be approved by the Florida Public Service Commission in addition to costs associated with them. Subsequent to that initial plan, a 2019 Florida law mandating the undergrounding of power lines long-term – while also allowing utility companies to pass the cost along to customers – helped move the process along considerably. By having cost assessment certainty, along with an eventual mandate to underground power lines, projects picked up speed across the state. Specific to FPL, the result was a scaling from just a smattering of neighborhoods in 2018-2019 up to 700 annually by 2023.  

As of the most recent reporting from FPL, 45% of their entire footprint has now been undergrounded. As for why nearly half have now been converted but not your community? It’s likely a byproduct of how your community fared during Matthew and Irma along with population considerations. It would appear that the most impacted, most populous areas, have been the priority to date. With Martin County lacking the population of its neighbors to the south, that’s likely been a factor. The most recent development on the undergrounding front came about just last month. I mentioned local governments also can play a role in the process. Coral Gables just got on board the a plan to underground the rest of its lines with FPL over 30-years. It’s yet another plan which must be approved by regulators. That’s a good example of how complicated all of this is. On the surface it sounds somewhat easy to simply convert power lines. The actual plans, approvals, costs, etc. present a myriad of complications. Relative to solar... There’s no indication the solar project has had any bearing on the timeline of the undergrounding projects.

I feature a listener question sent by one of these methods.  

Email: brianmudd@iheartmedia.com  

Gettr, Parler & Twitter: @brianmuddradio  

iHeartRadio: Use the Talkback feature – the microphone button on our station’s page in the iHeart app.    

High voltage transmission tower at sunset

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