Everyone’s favorite punching bag brought power back to 99.9% of households within 1 week. While that is nothing to sniff at, it is important to ask how the system can be designed to work better, instead of designed to fail better.
The City of Coral Gables announced today that it will study a plan to bury power lines in the city. It is estimated to cost upwards of $250 million, a figure almost equal to the total annual expenditures of the city. Any other year this would sound like a preposterous proposal, but with the context of Irma, it appears to be the only logical conclusion. The voters, after 4-8 days of overheated boredom, are ready to shell out an indeterminate amount of special assessments in order to never have to live through it again, and that is understandable.
The Miami Herald detailed in an article last week the complicated struggle that occurs between homeowners, city government, and FPL over the battle between distribution lines and trees. The distribution lines are simply strings hung between tall poles in front of your house, usually in the municipal right of way. The municipality usually wants to plant trees in that limited right of way to add shade and beauty. FPL wants it as clear as possible in order to allow for easy maintenance and low risk. Homeowners usually want to plant trees close to that right of way for privacy and noise mitigation. These three goals are in contrast with one another, so the compromise must be in the maintenance.
Cities are supposed to maintain their trees so that they do not overpower the right of way, and FPL is supposed to trim trees that are infringing upon power lines. This simple description of responsibility becomes anything but simple when you magnify it to 5 million people. Maintenance schedules are not followed; Some homeowners do not like their trees trimmed due to privacy or aesthetics; FPL and municipalities often ignore calls from concerned citizens about overgrown trees encroaching on lines; Cycles of recessions move properties through states of disrepair that allow trees to overgrow without maintenance.
After Irma, 4.4 million FPL customers were without power, representing 90% of its system in the state, along with 2,000 fallen poles. For context, Wilma brought down 12,000 poles, but only 75% of state customers lost power. Why the discrepancy?
After Wilma, FPL raised $3 billion from its profits and new costs on its customers in hardening its system. However, to many customers’ dismay, hardening the system is not about preventing outages. Hardening is simply about restoring them faster. After Wilma, most got power back in the second week, while in Irma they achieved 99% restoration after 1 week. That is the actual result of hardening of the system. Hardening involves changing poles to concrete and steel in order to prevent massive failure. The predictable and almost designed failure is for trees to topple and hit power lines, causing the widespread outages that were seen.
With all of this information, it would appear that Coral Gables is correct. The only way to allow for a peaceful right of way, more curb appeal, larger trees, and fewer outages is burying the lines. The question simply boils down to cost. Right now, FPL gives a small discount to those that want to bury their lines. This discount should be larger and take in the present value of the lowering of needed maintenance vs. a standing distribution line. These storms will continue to grow, and as mentioned in a previous article, an event like Irma is predictable and manageable if planned in advanced.
Not all cities will be able to afford this system. This will have to be a local decision. For cities that want the canopy, and want to spend less on maintenance, it appears to be something they should consider. In the meantime, state legislators should create and enforce proper oversight over FPL’s tree program and new construction of power poles, requiring them to be resistant to Category 5 winds (as they are in the Keys). They should create a grant program for burying power lines if municipalities want to bring money and coordination efforts to the table. Finally, we all should take lead from Miami Commissioner Ken Russell, who spearheaded a community-wide effort in Coconut Grove to map out where the fallen trees that were effecting power were. Using the app NextDoor, FPL was able to see in real time, photos and information regarding fallen trees. Without a dollar spent, he helped to speed up recovery efforts in his neighborhood and FPL should be working on creating an app of their own.
If citizens want to get involved through voting, tax increases, or by providing information, we need to create avenues for them to do that. If not, every storm will simply be a reiteration of the same complaints and failures.