PINELLAS COUNTY, Fla. — We’re less than two months away from the start of hurricane season, and recent storms are a reminder that safety and the reliability of the power we all count on is important.
Where do we stand on moving power lines underground? ABC Action News checked around with all of our local electric companies to find out.
Tampa Electric Company
TECO says they are making a big investment to move power lines underground. So far, 45% of their lines are underground and between the start of 2020 and the end of 2021, they hope to complete another 100 miles. Most of the underground lines are in newer neighborhoods where developers have paid to install them, according to TECO. Underground lines are more reliable than overhead lines they say, however, when there is an outage on an underground line, it is harder to find and harder to fix. TECO says they are also expensive; they can cost up to $1 million per mile to install. TECO is investing about $100 million a year toward improvements like burying overhead lines underground.
Duke Energy says about 45% of their power lines are underground. They also say most of the underground lines are in newer developments where developers have paid to put the lines underneath the surface of the ground for aesthetic purposes. Duke Energy says they are constantly looking at areas to make improvements, which may be prone to outages but typically the undergrounding they do is in smaller portions. Duke Energy also says undergrounding isn’t a perfect solution because it’s faster and easier to make fixes on overhead power equipment.
Lakeland Electric says their system is about 37% underground. The cost of underground distribution lines can be 4x to 8x more than overhead lines depending on the complexity of the project. Last year, Lakeland Electric added 31 miles of underground distribution lines, including new development and undergrounding previously overhead power lines. A project scheduled for this year will underground eight spans of distribution lines, which supply power to 20 customers. The project will take overhead lines behind residential homes that are difficult for their crews to access and move the lines to the front of their homes and underground. All new subdivisions in the City of Lakeland limits and the majority of all new subdivisions use underground distribution lines. Lakeland Electric says underground lines are generally more reliable, but uprooted trees and flooding, which often occur during storm season, can cause major disruptions. Power restoration and maintenance can take significantly more time for underground power lines. There is a balancing act Lakeland Electric says they must consider between cost, reliability, and ease of access when deciding between overhead and underground lines for a specific location.
Withlacoochee River Electric Cooperative
The Withlacoochee River Electric Cooperative has 36% of its lines underground. That amounts to 4,010 miles of power underground and 7,161 miles overground.
All the power companies are regulated by the Public Service Commission, which requires utility companies to provide power at the lowest possible cost to customers and that can sometimes make pricey upgrades like undergrounding more difficult to accomplish.
“There’s just not a perfect solution to outages when it comes to our equipment,” explained Duke Energy spokesperson Ana Gibbs. “Undergrounding does not solve all reliability issues. There are plus and minuses regardless what option you’re using. Undergrounding comes with its own challenges. It’s much more difficult to determine the cause of an outage when you’re dealing with an underground line. It’s also oftentimes going to take longer to conduct an underground repair,” she explained.
One place where a massive undergrounding project is currently taking place is on Gulf Boulevard in Pinellas County. In that case, the Penny for Pinellas sales tax is being used to fund upgrades, which should be complete by 2026.
It’s welcome news for Matthew Loder, the owner of Crabby Bill’s on Indian Rocks Beach. During Hurricane Irma, he says his restaurant lost $80,000 dollars in food. “I would prefer that we never have to worry about the power going off so if we never saw a hurricane that would be fine, but I don’t think that’s very practical so we would just hope if we do have one that we’ll be prepared for it,” he said enthusiastically.