Florida needs to 'harden' its electric system


Published: Tuesday, January 24, 2006 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Monday, January 23, 2006 at 10:51 p.m.
TALLAHASSEE - Florida needs to do more to make sure you can turn on your lights and air conditioners even after a major hurricane.
State regulators were told in an all-day hearing Monday that there are ways to "harden" the electric system so that it can better withstand storms and can be more quickly repaired when disasters strike.
Some solutions include underground utilities, stronger poles, new technologies, more aggressive tree trimming and smaller electric lines. But there is no one easy fix. And many changes will be costly and will only be accomplished over a long time.
"These are complex issues that will require complex solutions," said David McDonald of Progress Energy Florida, one of the state's major investor-owned utilities.
Local government officials told the Public Service Commission staff members that something has to be done soon to avoid a potential human disaster. They cite the more than 3 million customers who lost their power after a medium-strength hurricane, Wilma, crossed the state last year. Many of those customers waited weeks to have their power restored.
Dania Beach Mayor Anne Castro said she feared for the many elderly residents in Broward County communities who were trapped in high-rise condominiums and apartments without running water or air conditioning. Their salvation was cooler than average temperatures.
"Had the temperatures been 10 degrees higher, I think you would have seen a worse catastrophe and this whole thing would be moving so much faster and there would be a lot more finger-pointing," she said.
Charles Falcone, a commissioner with the town of Jupiter Island, a wealthy coastal enclave in Martin County, said the Florida Power & Light Co. had resisted his town's effort to install an underground utility system. But he said the utility officials had an "epiphany" after the spate of hurricanes in 2004 and 2005 and are now cooperating with the town on its proposal.
Utility officials and industry consultants told the PSC that underground utilities were part of a package of improvements that could make Florida's electric system more stormproof. But they also underscored the cost of such systems.
Richard Brown, a utility consultant with KEMA, said underground systems in new construction run from five to 10 times the cost of a traditional overhead system.
Costs are even higher for converting an existing system, Brown said, and could take decades to achieve.
Rather than emphasizing underground utilities as a sole solution, Brown recommended an array of cheaper and more immediate improvements. They include using stronger poles, more poles and securing the poles with stronger cables.
Major transmission lines could be made smaller - since larger lines are more likely to be impacted by high winds. More frequent and aggressive tree trimming, assuming local governments and citizens cooperate, could be undertaken.

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