Proposed bill could send Florida's power lines underground

A bill making its way through Tallahassee could lead utility companies to move their power lines underground, adding extra protection while helping to keep the lights on for more people after major storms. However, House Bill 797 could come at a cost to customers.

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. 

Phil Sardin remembers the darkness and the humid absence of air conditioning as his St. Petersburg neighborhood waited for power to come back.

"That was a long six and a half days. It was a week of misery, truly," Sardin said. "You had to have a lot of patience and you had to try to block out the uncomfortableness."

House Bill 797 is billed as the calm after the storm. If passed, power companies would be required to submit long-range plans to the Florida Public Service Commission to harden their systems. The plans would include bringing power lines underground, thereby reducing the number of outages and shortening the length of those that do happen.

On Monday, sponsor Rep. Randy Fine, R-Palm Bay, told House Government Operations & Technology Appropriations Subcommittee that, "When the power is out, people can’t go to work, kids can't go to school," Fine said. "The estimate is a third of the state having lost power for one day costs one billion dollars, not in electric costs, but costs on our state in our economic output."

However, the potential for electric customers having to foot the bill for change has some holding back their full support.

"AARP certainly supports a harder, stronger, more-resilient grid," said Zayne Smith, AARP Florida associate state director. "Our members depend on power more than probably many people do. But, the way this bill is written will also shift costs to consumers more than it already is. Our contention is, keep it in the base rate."

Jim Martin, the cChair of the 60 Plus Association, told the panel that he believes all seniors, regardless of income, would benefit from this bill. 

"Seniors know that planning and investment saves money in the long run," Martin said. "In this instance, it means fewer outages and faster restoration times."

Rep. Fine called the bill a "no-brainer" for the state's long-term fiscal health.

"Certainly, taking lines that go above ground and putting them underground will cost money and there will be an expense associated with it. But, let's look at the cost of doing nothing," Fine said.

In the last three seasons, hurricanes Michael, Hermine, Irma and Matthew wreaked havoc on Florida's power grid, sending armies of repair crews down to help restore electricity. If it means avoiding another week in the dark, Sardin welcomes the change.

"Long term, I think it will be a good solution," Sardin said. "I know it works in other places. There's no reason why it couldn't work here."

If HB 797 passes, Rep. Fine said that utility companies would not get a blank check. They would have to go in front of the Florida Public Service Commission to justify their plans and their cost recovery before getting approval to move forward.

Tampa Electric spokesperson Cherie Jacobs said, "Tampa Electric has looked at the bill, and we support it. It will enhance our long-range planning for storm hardening, which will help us continue to improve our safe, efficient restoration after storms."

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."