“Are underground power lines really the solution to power outages in South Florida?”

“Are underground power lines really the solution to power outages in South Florida?”

Photo: Al Diaz, Miami Herald

“Hurricane Irma was a game-changer for South Florida. Cities are preparing for hurricane season differently now. And the region’s largest utility, Florida Power & Light, is pushing for a method that could turn the lights back on faster after a storm…

Last month, FPL launched a three-year pilot program to put more power lines underground in more neighborhoods. According to FPL, 40 percent of its lines are already under the ground.

After the 2005 double-hitter of Hurricanes Katrina and Wilma, FPL invested nearly $3 billion to harden its electrical grid, to try to make it more resilient against the storms of the future.

Underground power lines are one of several hardening techniques that help make the grid more storm-resilient. Others include managing trees near electrical infrastructure; replacing wooden poles with concrete or steel ones; and reinforcing utility poles with guy wires (tensioned cables) for more stability.

FPL, which maintains a hybrid system of above-ground and underground lines, says it’s planning to harden all the power lines along major thoroughfares by 2024.

At the May PSC meeting, Olnick said underground power lines performed 80 percent better than overhead ones during Hurricane Irma – which means they were that much less likely to lose power.

‘Which was expected,’ he said.

If Irma had been a water storm, underground power lines would have faced other challenges, namely severe flooding and storm surge…

Buried power lines are kept inside PVC pipes that are made to be watertight. But if water manages to enter the pipes, then the outages can take longer to remedy because accessing buried infrastructure takes more time. (The U.S. Department of Energy estimates repairing ‘widespread below-ground failures an take several weeks.)

…South Florida’s geology compounds the water tradeoff. The pipes are sitting atop a bedrock of porous limestone – essentially a big sponge.

The ground material also varies with geography. Varela, the Miami Springs contractor, says he has hit sandy soil there while Coral Gables is known for its coral rock…

FPL says it’s trying to counter storm flooding. According to Olnick, the company is using flood monitors at substations to keep track of existing water. (During Irma, two substations in FPL’s 35-county territory were de-energized, or powered down, because of flooding.)

In Downtown Miami, the company is experimenting with sub-aqueous power lines that can be submerged in water, according to FPL’s Bryan Olnick.”

— Alexander Gonzalez & Caitie Switalski, WLRN Miami, South Florida
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“FPL looks to cities, counties to regulate tree trimming for next storm season”

“FPL looks to cities, counties to regulate tree trimming for next storm season”

Photo: Sun Sentinel

“Toppled trees left many South Florida residents in the dark after Hurricane Irma…

Ninety percent of FPL’s customers, or 13 million people, lost power as a result of Irma.

One of those people without power for 10 days was Broward County Commissioner (and former Broward Mayor) Barbara Sharief, and she’s determined that’s not going to happen again — at least not because of overgrown trees.

Sharief is proposing an ordinance that would fine property owners who violate FPL’s ‘Right Tree, Right Place’ program.

Expected to be on the Broward commission’s agenda in April or early May, the ordinance would fine owners $500 if they fail to relocate, replace or remove trees that don’t meet the ‘Right Tree’ code, and $500 if a property owner fails to properly prune an existing tree that may violate the code, or fails to notify FPL of a tree that can’t be brought to code..

Parkland adopted a similar ordinance after 2005’s Hurricane Wilma…

 In a letter by FPL attorney Kenneth Rubin to the Public Service Commission, FPL estimated it would cost $8 million to $9 million more to trim half the territory every two years, instead of a third every three years, which is currently the practice.

‘Legislation, particularly at the local level (e.g., municipal and county ordinances), could be enacted that restricts the type and location of vegetation that can be planted in the vicinity of power lines. Legislation could also provide electric utilities additional rights to address existing vegetation conditions on customers’ property that impede operation or maintenance of utility facilities,’ wrote Rubin in his response to state regulators’ questions regarding recent hurricane damage.

Palm Beach County Commissioner Steven Abrams said he would like to see the county and FPL work together on the issue.

‘We’re a heavily landscaped county. There are some old neighborhoods where the trees have been existing for ages,’ he said.

Norm Easey, CEO of the Florida Chapter of the International Society of Arboriculture in Sarasota, said FPL does a good job of vegetation management in the state, but ‘we don’t help ourselves. There are many communities that are OK with planting huge trees underneath power lines.’

Still, the overgrowth is not completely the fault of cities or homeowners, Easey said, adding that FPL has been known to put in a power line ‘where maybe they shouldn’t. If you don’t have your ducks in a row, don’t put in the power line.’

…FPL and other electric utility customers can provide feedback online at Floridapsc.com. To leave a comment, click on ‘Consumer Comments on Hurricane Preparedness and Restoration’ in red letters…”

— Marcia Heroux Pounds,Sun Sentinel

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“FPL seeks pilot program to test underground powerlines”

“FPL seeks pilot program to test underground powerlines”

Photo: Sun Sentinel
“Florida Power & Light Co. is planning a pilot program to put utility lines underground in not-yet-identified neighborhoods in the state…

FPL said September’s Hurricane Irma showed that underground main powerlines are more resilient in general, and during storms because they can’t be downed by trees and overgrown vegetation — the prime reason that 90 percent of FPL’s customers experienced an outage.

During Irma, 69 percent of hardened, overhead main powerlines and 82 percent of non-hardened main powerlines experienced outages, while only 19 percent of underground main lines lost power, FPL said in response to Sun Sentinel questions.

FPL said it plans to seek the Florida Public Service Commission’s approval for the pilot in locations somewhere in its 35-county service territory, ‘to determine which powerlines would benefit the most from undergrounding to enhance overall reliability,’ FPL spokesman Bill Orlove said…”

— Marcia Heroux Pounds, Sun Sentinel

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Counter argument: “Would millions in Irma’s path still have power if the lines were underground?”

Counter argument: “Would millions in Irma’s path still have power if the lines were underground?”

Photo: C.M. Guerrero, Miami Herald

Severe flooding and storm surge can also put the grid out of commision after storms, according to NPR.

‘You’re simply trading off one type of risk for another,’ Ted Kury, an energy expert at the University of Florida, told NPR. ‘Yes, you’ve mitigated the risk of losing power because of a failure in the pole or a tree getting blown into the lines. But you’ve traded that risk off for outages due to storm surge or to flooding.’

Across the country, only about 20 percent of U.S. power lines are underground, the Energy Information Agency reports.

Compare that with Germany, where nearly all low and medium voltage lines are buried safely underground, providing electricity to homes and apartments across the country, according to CNN. That’s led to fewer outages in Germany, CNN reports — but then again, the northern European county doesn’t deal with hurricanes..

–Jared Gilmour, Mcclatchy via Miami Herald

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Additional counter arguments in the Palm Beach Post