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Undergrounding 'not a panacea,' utilities tell Fla. lawmakers

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Undergrounding 'not a panacea,' utilities tell Fla. lawmakers

SNL Image

Jean Chatelier walks through a flooded street from Hurricane Irma in Fort Myers, Fla., in September.

Source: Associated Press

Utility officials, regulatory staffers and county commissioners all appeared before Florida lawmakers the week of Oct. 9 to answer questions on how they prepared for and responded to Hurricane Irma.

Representatives of Florida Power & Light Co., Duke Energy Florida LLC and Tampa Electric Co. argued that their collective billions of dollars in grid investments over the past decade, prompted by legislative and regulatory actions after the 2004 and 2005 storm seasons, resulted in better planning and faster restorations. But there were still some issues, they acknowledged.

The Oct. 10 session by the Senate Communications, Energy and Public Utilities Committee, the first of three statehouse hearings on Irma, focused primarily on the undergrounding of distribution lines and the shutting down of solar systems.

Gerry Chasse, Tampa Electric's vice president of electric delivery, said that according to his back-of-the-envelope math, Irma cost the company $75 million. The Emera Inc. subsidiary has 5,000 miles of underground cables and 6,000 miles of overhead ones, and Chasse said the utility would have to spend $6 billion to bury the overhead wires at a "very conservative cost" of $1 million per mile.

"Those are the magnitudes of economic challenges we have" when weighing $75 million versus $6 billion, Chasse said. And lines already underground are "not a panacea" and have difficulties of their own, he added.

"There will be increased reliability," Chasse said, adding, "When there are problems — dig-ins, other failures — it's harder to find; it takes much longer to replace and repair. And then I would say in the 30- to 50-year timeframe, when that infrastructure starts failing at a more rapid pace, it does get very expensive. So there are pros and cons, no question."

Bryan Olnick, Florida Power & Light's vice president of distribution operations, agreed that undergrounding is not a magic bullet. The NextEra Energy Inc. subsidiary, like other utilities during Irma, dealt with flooding and storm surge along with extreme winds uprooting trees, transformers and wires.

"I don't think it's a surprise," Olnick said. "Being in south Florida, when we do have one of those weeks where it rains for seven days straight, it's not surprising for a couple days after that we have some underground cables that tend to fail a little bit more. I think those things are not unanticipated."

"But in certain kinds of storms and in certain applications, I think undergrounding does have merits," he added.

Grid down, rooftop solar systems down

Cayce Hinton, director of the Florida Public Service Commission's Office of Industry Development and Market Analysis, explained that customers with rooftop solar systems were unable to use them during the storm because of a mandatory inverter installed between photovoltaic panels and the grid. That device automatically shuts down a solar system once the grid to which it is connected goes out.

Inverters are a safety measure for linemen so they do not get electrocuted while working to restore power, Hinton said. Larger arrays are required to have a manual disconnect switch between their inverter and the grid, which Hinton said has given assurance to utilities. That directive is waived for Tier 1 systems that produce less than 10 kWh, as companies are confident inverters will work in that setup.

The only way to access solar-generated electricity during a storm is to install batteries and additional safety equipment to island that home or business, Hinton said.

At an Oct. 11 hearing of the House Energy and Utilities Subcommittee, Chasse was asked if Tampa Electric will swap its downed wooden poles with ones made of concrete or steel. Because almost all of the toppled posts were part of the utility's distribution network, and thus made of wood, they will be replaced with wood, Chasse said. But he promised they will be redesigned to a higher standard.

Chasse warned members of both chambers that Tampa Electric has yet to experience the worst hurricane conditions. Irma did not pass directly over the Tampa Bay area, but if a future Category 4 or 5 storm did, it would be "a different storm model that we need to go to because while I think we did well [during Irma], no question we were stretched," he said. "It was a lot of resources to manage for such a small company."

The PSC announced it will collect and analyze forensic data from utilities, along with information on their tree-trimming practices, pole inspection cycles and restoration procedures. The agency's executive director, Braulio Baez, said at a recent meeting that he is seeking to close an "expectations gap" between customers and companies. Ratepayers have been invited to submit comments on their storm experiences.

Mark Futrell, the PSC's deputy executive director, said at the House hearing that a written report could come of the agency's efforts and a public workshop will be held that could result in direction from the PSC to utilities. Hinton said its analysis will not be done by the end of the legislative session, scheduled to conclude March 9, 2018.

State Rep. Jeanette Nuñez, chair of the recently created Select Committee on Hurricane Response and Preparedness, said at an Oct. 12 meeting that the group will hear utility testimony Oct. 26.

"Everything about Irma was big," Duke Energy Florida storm director Jason Cutliffe said at the Senate hearing. "I've been in this business a little over 30 years myself, and it felt like 15 of those came in the middle of September."