Nearly two-thirds of Florida –some 6.7 million customers - lost power during 2017’s Hurricane Irma. Utilities blamed most of those outages on falling trees and debris that knocked over power lines.
To strengthen the electrical grid against future storms, Florida Power and Light is moving more power lines underground.
A pilot project is underway in one residential neighborhood in Sarasota with 44 homes.
FPL crews showed reporters how they bore a hole in the gully of a home’s front yard. The power lines are routed beneath the soil, and get connected to a junction box at the house, and to a transformer box by the street.
There’s no visible damage to the lawn. And FPL covers the costs – paid for as part of customers’ regular utility bills.
But there’s a catch: everyone in the neighborhood has to agree, says program manager Enrique Formoso.
“That is our biggest challenge to get all 44 people to agree with it. Because it is hard enough to get two people to agree. So it takes us a little time but people start to see what it is and what the benefits are.”
The process is called “undergrounding.”
The utility company says it has spent nearly $4 billion since 2006 on a range of programs to make its grid more storm resilient.
Already, 47 percent of FPL’s power is underground. The utility serves about 460,000 customers in Sarasota and Manatee counties.
“Our main thing is to get better reliability to all these customers and right now we think undergrounding is the best method,” said Formoso.
FPL says it won’t move power lines underground in areas that can get flooded easily. And residents cannot ask to be part of the program. Neighborhoods have to be chosen based on how hard they were hit in the past.
“Before Hurricane Irma, about two days before the storm we lost power and then after the storm we didn’t have power for about a week,” said Scott Foxworthy.
They have a well, which means he, his wife and their six children couldn’t get any running water either during that time.
So when he heard about the project to put power lines underground was coming to his Sarasota neighborhood?
“I couldn’t sign up fast enough,” he said.
FPL has 85 Storm Secure Underground Projects planned for the Sarasota area.
It has already completed eight such projects throughout the state.
A few people in this Sarasota neighborhood were hesistant at first, but eventually agreed to the project.
Ron Chappell said that for him, signing on was a “no-brainer.”
“Since I work for the phone company I know what preventive maintenance is like, and this is like, the ultimate preventive maintenance,” he said.