Palm Beach’s plan to bury all overhead utility lines on the island has ignited a debate about the pros and cons of an underground system.
Proponents say that, apart from their aesthetic superiority, buried power lines eliminate service interruptions caused by storm winds or conflicts with tree limbs.
But opponents question whether buried utility lines are worth the steep conversion cost which, in Palm Beach’s case, works out to more than $2 million per mile. Another concern: on a barrier island, are buried lines and on-the-ground transformers vulnerable to outages caused by flooding?
It’s a safe bet that Palm Beach officials were watching closely how other barrier-island towns with buried utilities fared during Hurricane Irma, which roared through on Sept 10. Palm Beach plans to bury all of its overhead lines over the next several years; construction began this summer.
In Palm Beach, all 9,600 customers lost power during Irma and it took a week to get everyone restored. According to Florida Power Light, about 33 miles of lines in Palm Beach are underground, or about 47 percent of the town. But the entire town receives power from main lines that reach the island beneath the Intracoastal Waterway.
Leaders of four barrier island towns contacted for this story — two of which have completely buried their utilities and two of which are working toward that goal – all said Irma affirmed their belief in the superiority of undergrounded systems.
In Jupiter Inlet Colony, power, cable and internet remained in service for all 240 households for the duration of the Sept. 10 hurricane, which thrashed the exclusive residential hamlet with 80-mph winds, Mayor Dan Comerford said.
“We were sitting in our air-conditioned houses throughout the night and it was fantastic,” he said. “Once you go underground, you are a true believer.”
Jupiter Inlet Colony gets electricity from a power station six miles to the south. Power comes through storm-hardened lines – the poles are made of concrete or a composite and are two to three times taller than traditional wooden poles — along U.S. 1.
The town spent $2.6 million to bury all its utilities after suffering power outages that dragged on for days after hurricanes Frances, Jeanne and Wilma, he said.
In Longboat Key, near Sarasota, the 6,000 customers with buried utilities experienced little if any power interruptions, Town Manager Dave Bullock said. But it wasn’t the same story for those with overhead service. Roughly half of those 4,000 customers lost power and some were still without it a week after the storm, Bullock said.
“We let residents back on the island at 4 p.m. on Monday, the day after the storm,” he said. “As far as I know, at that point all the underground-area residents had power, and we had 2,200 overhead customers still without power.”
Tree damage and blown debris was the reason for most of the outages, he said.
Many of Longboat Key’s properties were built with underground utilities in the 1980s. In 2015, town voters approved a $25 million bond issue to finance the burial of all overhead lines.
No magic bullet
Despite their advantages, buried power systems are no panacea against service interruptions. The entire towns of Golden Beach and Gulfstream lost power despite having buried utilities for all or a large portion of their properties. The managers in both towns said that’s because FPL’s main lines, which carry power to them, are overhead.
Golden Beach, in northeastern Miami-Dade County, has a fully undergrounded utility system. But all 390 properties lost power from Sept. 10 until Sept. 14, Town Manager Alexander Diaz said.
“Even though we are below ground, the lines that energize our community are still above ground,” he said.
Those lines come through nearby communities that have overhead power. “If their systems were undergrounded, we would have had no issue,” Diaz said.
When power came back, it was immediately restored to the entire island except for six homes that were served by a damaged circuit, he said. They had power back in another 48 hours.
Golden Beach spent $7 million to bury its utilities five years ago as part of a larger infrastructure project.
“We’re glad we did it,” Diaz said. Had the town’s lines still been overhead when Irma struck, “we would have had to re-wire the community, then re-energize. Because on a barrier island like we are, the likelihood of wires coming down is 100 percent.”
In Gulf Stream, an affluent town along State Road A1A in Palm Beach County, the town is in the last phase of converting all of its 500-plus homes to underground utilities. Voters approved a $5.5 million referendum in 2012 to bury all power, cable television and phone lines.
Town Manager Greg Dunham said that, even though Irma did no damage to utilities in the undergrounded areas, the entire town was without power for five days after the storm. That was because of damage to the main lines bringing power to the island, he said.
Once power was restored, problems remained on the north side of the island, where utilities are still overhead.
“We had a couple of poles that were leaning and being held up by the wires,” he said. “One took six hours to replace … the last streets to power up again were ones where utility poles had to be replaced.”
Dunham said he remains a strong believer in underground utilities. If power fails during a storm, “we will know it won’t be any of our infrastructure causing the power outage.”
Palm Beach Town Manager Tom Bradford said overhead main lines shouldn’t be an issue for the town once island-wide utility burial is completed.
“All lines will reconnect to the mainland (in West Palm Beach) and all of the connection points will ultimately be hardened, from the edge of Lake Worth to the substation where the power is coming from that feeds Palm Beach,” he said.
Flooding not a concern
None of the transformers in Gulf Stream, Jupiter Inlet Colony or Longboat Key were flooded during Irma, their respective leaders said.
“We are a barrier island but have not been under water since the 1920s,” Bullock said of Longboat Key. In any case, “the new systems are designed to be outside and to be exposed to the elements.” Besides, elevation can be added beneath transformers in the lowest areas of the island, he said.
Diaz said Golden Beach’s transformers were flooded during Irma but the water had receded by the time FPL restored power. “Flooding was not an issue,” he said.
The electrical wires are encased in conduit. The only places were the undergrounded system is vulnerable to water intrusion are where the electrical wires connect to the transformers and where they connect to the homes, he said.
Jupiter Inlet Colony’s elevation ranges from 6 to 17 feet above sea level, and averages 11 feet in most places, Comerford said. The town also has a state-of-the-art system for managing stormwater runoff.
“Even with 10 inches of rain in this hurricane, we did not even have a puddle,” he said.
Steven Stern, Palm Beach’s underground utilities project manager, said the town contacted Comerford, Dunham, Diaz and Bullock as part of its own post-Irma inquiry. Stern said he was told that the storm cleanup was simpler, safer and quicker in areas where there were no downed poles or electrical wires to clear.
“The responses were overwhelmingly positive about their underground systems,” he said.
Town Hurricane and Utilities Report
What: Public forum on hurricane recovery and underground utilities hosted by the Palm Beach Civic Association
When: 10 a.m. Nov. 16
Where: The Episcopal Church of Bethesda-by-the-Sea, 141 S. County Road
For information: Call 655-0820 or visit PalmBeachCivic.org/events
Article source: http://www.palmbeachdailynews.com/news/local/palm-beach-asks-how-did-buried-utilities-perform-during-irma/Od33LgBQ4tsq6EdChHf2eM/