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The Keys have no power grid — they have an 'extension cord.' One problem knocks everyone offline

 Many of the electricity lines along the Keys are over water and require constant maintenance — often by helicopter.
Keys Energy Services
Many of the electricity lines along the Keys are over water and require constant maintenance — often by helicopter.

Helicopters are hovering next to the power lines that parallel the Overseas Highway in the Florida Keys. It's a project that has led to two recent power outages in the Lower Keys — but the utility says that work is done.

The transmission line normally provides all of the power for Keys Energy, the utility that serves from the Seven Mile Bridge to Key West.

"Those lines travel over water for a lot of the distance from here to the mainland. There's a lot of corrosion that happens. So it's just constant maintenance," said Julio Torrado, director of human resources and communications for the utility.

One of the projects is replacing the aluminum static wire that runs along the top of the poles and protects the equipment below from lightning strikes. And that work requires turning off the transmission line. So the Lower Keys were being powered by the plant on Stock Island, normally used only in emergencies or when demand is really high.

In the first outage, last Thursday, a switch at the plant malfunctioned and took down power for everyone in the Lower Keys. Keys Energy decided to halt the work on the repairs and power up the transmission line. It was more than two hours before everyone got power again.

The second outage, on Monday, affected fewer people and was shorter and just required re-starting one of the generation units at the local plant.

Torrado says he sees the comments on social media from frustrated customers who can't conduct business or have other issues with the power outages. He said he believes many of them are from people who moved here from places with multiple transmission lines, so if something fails, you never realize it because a backup kicks in.

"In our case, we have that one extension cord that connects us to the mainland," he said. "And it takes a sailboat or an osprey or an iguana or, you know, just a malfunctioning piece of equipment that knocks everyone off line."

Keys Energy is planning more work using helicopters to repair equipment at the top of the poles — but Torrado said the transmission line will stay on throughout that work.

The cold weather is an advantage in scheduling work that requires turning off the transmission line. Torrado said current power demand is about half of what it is in the summer, when everyone in the Keys is using their air conditioners.

Want to keep up with the latest stories out of the Florida Keys like this one? Sign up for The Tieline, our newsletter focused on all things Keys and Monroe County. The newsletter will arrive in your inbox twice a month and is written and curated by WLRN’s southernmost reporter Nancy Klingener. She shares her reporting, the latest news out of the Keys and much more. Head here to sign up.

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Nancy Klingener covers the Florida Keys for WLRN. Since moving to South Florida in 1989, she has worked for the Miami Herald, Solares Hill newspaper and the Monroe County Public Library.