By Jim Saunders The News Service of Florida
After Hurricane Irma knocked out power to millions of Floridians, state regulators Tuesday took up a draft report about preparing for future storms and grappled with issues such as underground power lines and finding ways to increase tree trimming.
The draft report, compiled by staff members of the Florida Public Service Commission, said efforts to strengthen the electric system — known in industry parlance as “hardening” the system — have helped reduce the length of power outages since the state’s disastrous 2004 and 2005 hurricane seasons.
But even with the improvements, many residents and businesses were unhappy with power-restoration efforts after lights and air-conditioning systems went out in Irma last year and during hurricanes Hermine and Matthew in 2016.
“Despite substantial, well-documented improvement, customers were dissatisfied with the extent of outages and restoration times,” the draft report said. “The public’s expectations are rising, indicating resilience and restoration will have to continually improve.”
With that as a backdrop, the Public Service Commission spent more than two hours Tuesday going through the draft report and suggesting changes. The report is expected to come back to the commission next month.
One of the major issues discussed Tuesday involved underground power lines, with commissioners weighing advantages and downsides to the issue.
Commission Chairman Art Graham said the message he hears is that having underground power lines is a “panacea.” But Graham and other members of the commission tried to tamp down that idea, saying the issue is more complex and could come with high costs.
“It may fix quite a few problems, but do we need to underground everything?” Graham asked.
Tom Ballinger, director of the commission’s Division of Engineering, said underground utilities are often being included in areas of new construction. But Commissioner Gary Clark pointed to potentially expensive projects to replace above-ground power lines in developed areas with underground lines.
“When you talk about conversions, you are taking an existing asset that in many cases is already paid for, and you are completely starting with a brand-new cost again,” Clark said. “So, those costs have to be borne by someone.”
Graham also drew a distinction between large transmission lines that carry electricity from power plants and distribution lines that bring electricity to customers. While Graham said he could see putting more distribution lines underground, he questioned the need to do so with transmission lines
“You’re talking about putting a whole lot of voltage underground, and the cost is pretty huge,” he said. “I don’t know if we’re going to get our bang for the buck doing that on the transmission side of things as we would more on the distribution side of things.”
Ballinger said Florida Power & Light and Duke Energy Florida are working on pilot programs aimed at moving from above-ground power lines to underground lines in some areas. Also, the commission discussed the possibility of updating a 2007 report that looked at ways to strengthen the electric system, including issues related to placing lines underground.
While the draft report touched on a variety of topics, commissioners also focused on a need to spur more tree trimming to avoid limbs and trees falling on power lines during storms.
Clark took aim at local governments, saying “city tree ordinances are stopping prudent right-of-way trimming.” He said the issue should be put on the table to possibly be addressed by the Legislature.
Commissioner Julie Brown said she backed a “softer approach” than what Clark sought. But she also said she would ask the Legislature to look at the issue of vegetation management to try to spare power lines in storms.
Commissioner Donald Polmann said a significant issue is how tree trimming is handled on private property. Similarly, the draft report pointed to tree-trimming issues outside of the utilities’ control.
“Years of trimming programs have controlled vegetation intruding into utilities’ right of way, now the primary cause of outages is vegetation and other debris coming from outside the rights of way, where utilities typically don’t have access to trim,” the draft report said.
— News Service Assignment Manager Tom Urban contributed to this report.