The vision of no power lines cluttering Longboat Key is a pleasant one. What an eyesore they are, even if you tend to block them out of mind as one of life’s tradeoffs for the amazing convenience of electricity.
But if underground power lines made an iota of economic sense, probably the vast majority of Longboat taxpayers would support the cost of a conversion from overhead to underground power lines.
But that’s the heart of the issue: the cost vs. the benefit.
At a quick glance, underground lines don’t pass the tests. They don’t make economic sense when you compare the cost of upgrading the existing poles with the cost of dismantling the existing lines and installing lines underground.
Nor, it seems, if you read the accompanying text from Florida Power & Light Co., do they seem to make practical sense. FPL says underground cables can be problematic in areas that are prone to flooding.
They take longer to repair and line corrosion occurs faster than with above-ground lines.
These factors apparently compelled four of Longboat’s town commissioners not to spend $189,000 on a feasibility study for underground power lines.
Going against the study were the arguments that the ultimate gain in aesthetics and reliability would not outweigh the costs; the town has higher, costly priorities to address than power lines, such as beach erosion and deteriorating water lines.
You can’t fault that thinking.
What’s more, you can see how FPL’s plans to begin replacing power poles this August compelled commissioners to act now and reject the study. One commissioner cited the hurricane season as an argument not to delay the pole replacements.
To be sure, citizens elect representatives to make the best decisions they can for the citizenry with the information available. But let’s be the devil’s advocate here.
What are the rate-payers’ sentiments on underground lines? Truth is, commissioners don’t really know.
What’s more, you get the sense FPL is rushing the town to conform with FPL’s pole-replacement schedule. Talk about the tail wagging the dog. Rushing a decision you may well regret.
If FPL proceeds in August with replacing power poles island-wide, that essentially rules out underground cables for a long, long time. It would be foolish — economically and practically — for FPL to dig up the Key and replace the poles now and then come back in a few years to convert to underground lines.
This reminds us of W. Edwards Deming’s rules for manufacturing: Do it right the first time. Don’t let FPL rush you to judgment.
There are other factors that make the feasibility study worth more consideration:
• In FPL’s FAQ on overhead versus underground, it notes that more than one-third of its power lines are underground. Mind you, many of those lines were laid as new lines in new residential and commercial developments, certainly a less expensive proposition than converting old lines.
Nonetheless, the fact FPL chose to go underground with more than 33% of its customers’ power lines indicates the efficacy of underground lines. Flooding must not be all that concerning.
Of course, we know flooding is always a concern here; the Key certainly has its low spots on the Manatee side. But wouldn’t it be worthwhile to hear detailed, expert discussions from FPL officials on the reliability of underground lines on the Key?
One more thing: the cost. Commissioner Pat Zunz has said lost in the discussion of burying the utility wires is FPL’s offer to reduce the costs by 25%. Now that’s worth discussing. Perhaps that might also apply that to the cost of the study.
Yes, $189,000 is a lot for a study. But it’s probably worth it if it helps prevent making a mistake that lasts for 10 or 20 more years.
WHAT FPL SAYS ON UNDERGROUND CABLES
The following is excerpted from a Florida Power & Light Co. document entitled: “Overhead and Underground Service FAQs”:
Is FPL opposed to underground service?
Absolutely not. Already more than one-third of the neighborhood power lines in FPL’s system are underground.
What are the different strengths and weaknesses of overhead and underground service that affect performance and reliability?
While underground facilities are not as susceptible to wind and debris-blown damage, they are more susceptible to water intrusion and local flood damage, which can make repairs more time consuming and costly.
Overhead facility damage is easier to locate than underground and can generally be repaired quicker.
Underground interruptions may be less frequent, but typically last longer due to more complex repair requirements.
Following hurricanes, we’ve found that areas that took the longest to repair were generally those served by underground facilities still flooded days after the storm passed. Damage and corrosion of underground electrical systems often shows up days or even months later, causing additional outages and inconvenience to customers. Storm winds can damage both types of systems causing outages.
Overhead systems face outages resulting from trees and debris blowing into lines. Underground systems face outages from trees collapsing on above-ground transformers and switch boxes or from tree-root systems uprooting buried cable when trees topple.
Also, we often forget that while a neighborhood may be locally served by underground cable, all electric service eventually comes back above ground and connects to overhead service, either in the neighborhood next door, or further down the street where overhead main lines and transmission lines move power from power plants and substations into our neighborhoods. Thus, exposure to above-ground electric service from weather, animals and trees is never fully eliminated.
Are there different ways the conversion of a full neighborhood or city might be financed?
Yes. For cities, FPL recently established, with Public Service Commission approval, a mechanism to recover the costs associated with converting from overhead to underground by adding a fee to customer bills.
Chapters 197 and 170 of the Florida Statutes allow municipalities levy special assessments on tax bills. … The special assessment may be collected directly from the local government imposing the assessment or through annual property tax bills.
Florida Statute 125.01(q) lets counties establish municipal service benefit units and municipal service taxing units. These governmental units may levy service charges, special assessments or taxes within these units to fund underground conversion costs.
How does the new FPL undergrounding tariff work?
Under this new tariff, a city could pay to make the conversion and then recover its costs over a designated timeframe by having FPL add an underground fee on the bills of those customers in their jurisdiction who would be benefiting from the conversion. Fees may not exceed 15% of a customer’s bill or $30 for residential and $50 for every 5,000 kwh commercial.
What might it cost to convert from overhead to underground service?
The two key drivers contributing to the cost calculations are labor and materials. Depending on these factors, underground facilities can cost anywhere from $500,000 per mile to more than $4 million per mile … These figures have a considerable amount of variability …
What are some of the impacts associated with converting an older overhead system to new underground?
Converting from an overhead to an underground system means basically abandoning an existing working grid system.
The logistics of converting an existing grid system in an established neighborhood can be considerably more expensive and disruptive to personal property and surroundings than, for example, building new.
For example, utilities often share poles above ground, so that if the objective is to move utilities underground, it’s not just electrical service that needs to be considered, but also phone, cable television and Internet service. This then presents additional considerations, such as different spacing requirements, boring and/or trenching needs and ground-level switching boxes involved in providing each type of service.
Driveways, sidewalks, fences, landscaping, sprinkler systems and yards may need to be torn up or may be inadvertently damaged if not clearly delineated. Ingress and egress to homes and business could be impacted for extensive periods of time.
Because permits are needed to change meter-related equipment, conversions in older homes and neighborhoods may end up triggering city or county requirements that homeowners/businesses bring interior wiring up to current code. This could require the expense of a licensed electrician and potentially extensive interior rewiring and remodeling.
Finally, legal easements are needed from all conversion participants that allow FPL access to its underground equipment, including the above ground components — and a number of people must agree to have the large green transformer box and pad or other switching boxes in their yards.
Should the Longboat Key Town Commission pay $189,000 for a feasibility study on replacing overhead power lines with underground power lines?
Respond to: [email protected]; or send your letter to Longboat Observer, 5570 Gulf of Mexico Drive, Longboat Key, FL 34228.