With memories of massive outages after Hurricane Irma, Hurricane Michael and other storms, state lawmakers Thursday gave final approval to a bill that could lead to an expansion of underground power lines.
The Senate voted 39-1 to pass the measure Thursday, a day after the House signed off in a 110-3 vote. The bill (SB 796) is ready to go to Gov. Ron DeSantis.
Senate sponsor Joe Gruters, R-Sarasota, said lawmakers are taking a “long-range approach” to strengthening the state’s electric system. Gruters and other supporters of the bill have pointed, in part, to economic losses caused by major power outages.
“It’s a public safety issue. It’s a resiliency issue,” he said.
Utilities already have underground power lines in some areas. But a key part of the bill would change the way underground power-line projects are financed, a change that could lead to more projects --- but also higher bills for utility customers.
Generally, utilities such as Florida Power & Light, Duke Energy Florida, Tampa Electric Co. and Gulf Power incorporate storm-hardening costs in their base electric rates, which are set for multiple years. The Florida Public Service Commission goes through months-long processes to determine base rates, looking at financial and technical issues that involve numerous parts of utility operations.
But the bill would set up a separate Public Service Commission process that would allow utilities each year to seek to collect money from customers for storm-protection projects, such as building underground power lines. The senior-advocacy group AARP Florida and the Florida Industrial Power Users Group, which is often involved in utility regulatory issues, opposed the bill because of the potential of higher costs.
Supporters, however, contend that power outages have massive costs. In addition to the costs of restoring electricity, they argue the economy is hurt when outages hit businesses.
“This is what I do know, right now we spend billions of dollars every time the power goes out to get it back on,” House sponsor Randy Fine, R-Palm Bay, said during a House discussion this week. “Those of you who lived through Irma remember we import hundreds, if not thousands, if not tens of thousands of people to come down here to get our utilities back on. That costs hundreds and hundreds of millions of dollars. To some degree, a lot of that goes away if we do this.”
The dissenting votes were cast by Sen. Jose Javier Rodriguez, D-Miami, Rep. Ben Diamond, D-St. Petersburg, Rep. Anna Eskamani, D-Orlando, and Rep. Cindy Polo, D-Miramar. Diamond and Eskamani raised questions about costs during the House discussion this week.