Next Storm, Can We Keep the Lights On?

Under The Hood


“So do you have power at your place?” It’s the question we all get asked, and as of Friday, the answer should be “Yes” for virtually all residents of Sarasota and Manatee counties. Florida Power & Light issued a press release Friday announcing lineman restored power for “essentially all” the 4.4 million customers in their service boundary that suffered a blackout because of Hurricane Irma.

Now comes the important question of what could be done better when the next storm arrives. Can we ensure restoration comes quicker? Could we employ measures like undergrounding wires to prevent outages from occurring at all?

The second question has fascinated me since 2004, when four hurricanes hit Florida in a single season. I lived in Central Florida at the time, where Frances and Jeanne would be most remembered. My hometown of Leesburg decided afterward to start burying all power lines to prevent blackouts in the future. It worked fairly well—my parents lost power for all of 8 hours when Hurricane Irma ripped through. So why haven't companies in this part of the state, particularly in coastal areas, put more wires underground?

The solution, as always, is harder than it sounds. Bill Orlove, FPL spokesman, says the company happily works with developers and communities that want new power lines to go in the earth instead of overhead. Longboat Key has been assessing the costs of undergrounding utilities for a little more than a year.

But it’s a costly move to retrofit communities, and Orlove notes that the project doesn’t eliminate the impact of a storm. “No energy company can make a grid hurricane-proof,” he says.

Of course not. Most people who aren’t in the midst of a 10-run without a refrigerator and who aren’t washing hands with bottled water because the pump outside doesn’t work realize that. Some outages inevitable happen when 100-mph wind gusts come to town.

What are the problems with undergrounding? For one, floods. Our region avoided storm surge this storm, thankfully. Had Irma hugged the coast, we’d have seen several feet of surge, like that experienced in Naples. And had the storm maintained its strength, we could have seen severe flooding. Underground wires would be prone to damage, and it would be harder to detect where the problems were in the circuit, as opposed to being able to look outside and see a tree branch that tore down a line.

Which gets back to the problems with having wire overhead. Particularly in a community like this one that loves its foliage, there’s a lot of trees that can get felled into power lines. Orlove says FPL has made sure to bury or to “harden” 40 percent of main power lines, meaning those that feed the regional grid. Hardening means reinforcing the high wires to better withstand forceful hurricane winds. And over the past 11 years (since Hurricane Wilma), FPL has trimmed back trees along 9,670 miles of Sarasota County and 5,330 miles in Manatee.

Sarasota County Commissioner Paul Caraigiulo, who issued updates on power restoration on Facebook after the storm and went without power for nine days himself, says treebranch removal will have to be a conversation now, and a tough one in a place where people love their greenery. He’s not convinced undergrounding is the simple answer, at least not everywhere, noting than on Longboat, it looks like it will cost more than $800 a foot to underground the island. So is this a fight between expense undergrounding or cutting back our canopies? That will be a difficult conversation, for sure.

To be fair to FPL, the company did its best to manage expectations at a stressful time. Early on, the power company told the public power would be restored by Sept. 22, the day they announced completion. And Orlove notes this storm, unlike any other in the company's history, impacted customers in all 35 counties where FPL does business. The company believes this work to be fastest restoration ever of so many people by a single utility.

Then again, this storm ended up being much less vicious than forecasters expected (outside the Florida Keys, which took a hard hit). Someday, a worse storm will impact the community. A cost will be paid one way or another, either in costly prep now or painful recovery afterward.

Jacob Ogles is contributing senior editor to SRQ Media Group.

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