Bracing for impact: Utilities say storm-hardening efforts proved effective against recent hurricanes

by | Jan 26, 2023

  • Electric utility reps testified before a Senate Committee on Wednesday that storm hardening efforts are proving effective
  • FPL said undergrounding cables were resistant against storm damage and faster restoration was made possible as a result
  • Duke energy testified that strengthening poles and relocating hard-to-reach infrastructure was working well and still in progress
  • Testimony was also heard that other utilities, such as telecom, cable television and internet, were not as willing to bury or harden their infrastructure

Florida utilities, including Florida Power and Light (FPL), Duke Energy, and Tampa Electric testified today they they are continuing the process of storm hardening power infrastructure in the state to prevent prolonged outages and costly damage to the power grid caused by strong storms and hurricanes.

A representative from FPL told the Senate Select Committee on Resiliency today that underground lines installed so far have held up well to flooding and that restoration after Hurricane Ian was quicker as a result.

“Our underground equipment does perform well,” said Andy Pankratz, Senior Director of Emergency Preparedness for FPL. “It is able to be submerged…It is much quicker to restore that equipment than it is to replace or restore damaged overhead equipment.”

In addition to reducing the risk of power outages caused by falling trees and high winds, underground lines are less visible and can be more aesthetically pleasing, making them a more attractive option for communities.

But the process of undergrounding is expensive, and the cost can vary depending on the location and the type of equipment used. It is also typically far more expensive than installing overhead lines. According to industry estimates, burying power lines can cost as much as $600,000 to $1 million a mile, far more than the cost of traditional overhead lines.

In addition to undergrounding by FPL, other utilities like Duke Energy are using other storm-hardening techniques such as strengthening or replacing utility poles, and relocating or reinforcing hard-to-access power substations.

“We’ve gone to larger poles, heavier class poles, as well as shortened our span length,” said Todd Fountain, General Manager of Emergency Preparedness for Duke Energy. “Our average span length (the length of an overhead powerline between poles) in the past was about 250 feet. We’ve shortened them to about 125 feet, or 150 feet, to help with storms.”
FPL’s Pankratz testified that the process of restoring service is quicker and easier for underground lines as compared to traditional overhead lines. He added that during Hurricane Ian, FPL addressed outages affecting 2.1 million customers and restored electricity to nearly all accounts within eight days of the hurricane’s arrival.

Asked by senators about the prospect of co-locating underground infrastructure, including cellular telephone lines, cable and internet lines alongside FPL powerlines in order to share costs, Pankratz said the company hasn’t found many takers because many companies simply can’t keep up with FPL’s pace.

“When we go to underground, we obviously reach out to the other utilities that are on those poles, to see if they want to join us in the undergrounding, and so far, it’s limited,” Pankratz said.

“So that would be telecommunications, cable, those types of things?” asked Select Committee Chairman Senator Ben Albritton. “Broadband?”

“That’s right,” Pankratz responded.


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