Lawmakers consider bills that would force Florida power companies to strengthen electrical grid

Florida lawmakers moved one step closer this week to forcing power companies to come up with ways to harden their electrical grid, in a move to decrease the number and frequency of outages.

Bills have been passed in the Florida House of Representatives and Senate that require power companies to present 10-year plans to the state's Public Service Commission. The proposals could include burying power lines underground, which Tampa Electric is supporting.

"Underground power lines are more reliable than overhead power lines. The outages are less frequent," said Cherie Jacobs, a TECO spokesperson. "About 45% of our system right now is underground and that is mostly in new neighborhoods where the lines were installed underground when the neighborhood was built."

In the last three seasons, hurricanes Michael, Hermine, Irma, and Matthew wreaked havoc on Florida's power grid. Hurricane Irma, which hit in September 2017, knocked out power for 6.7 million residents in Florida. More than a week later, thousands remained powerless. 

There are downsides, however, to underground lines: flooding and salt water can cause major issues.

"When there is an issue on an underground power line, it's harder to find and harder to fix than an issue on an overhead line. So outages on an underground line can take considerably longer to restore," Jacobs said.

RELATED: Bill to strengthen Florida's utilities could also raise customer rates

The price tag on a project like this is unknown, according to Jacobs. Whatever the cost ends up being, the bills allow power companies to pass along a portion of the cost to customers without requesting a rate hike. Consumer advocacy groups have spoken out against such an idea.

Some customers also don't want to see their bills increase.

"My electric bill is usually a little over $200 each month," said Leslie Alvarado, a TECO customer. "If I had to pay a little bit more, it would be harder for my pocket."

"I'd be willing to pay more for the possibility of fewer outages," said TECO customer David Esteves. "However, there has to be some kind of penalty in place, i.e. 'Oh wait, there is an outage so therefore I get a little bit of kickback on my bill.'"

Duke Energy spokesperson Ana Gibbs said, "Duke Energy looks forward to discussing long term energy policy with legislators as the proposals make their way through session. We appreciate these efforts to harden the energy grid and improve storm preparedness."

The power companies' proposals would have to be approved by the Florida Public Service Commission, which is not expected to view the plans for several months.