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Why utilities don’t move power lines out of hurricanes’ way

Utilities focus on restoring power after storms rather than preventing outages during them.

Florida residents shopped in the dark after Hurricane Irma knocked out power in the state.
Spencer Platt/Getty Images
Umair Irfan is a correspondent at Vox writing about climate change, Covid-19, and energy policy. Irfan is also a regular contributor to the radio program Science Friday. Prior to Vox, he was a reporter for ClimateWire at E&E News.

Millions of Floridians are ready to get on with their recovery from Hurricane Irma, which roared through the state earlier this week, pummeling homes and flooding streets. But for the moment, many are stuck anxiously waiting in the sweltering heat for the power (and the all-important air conditioning) to come back on.

One of the largest Atlantic storms ever, Irma knocked out power to 6.7 million accounts in Florida, or about two-thirds of the state. As of Wednesday afternoon, state emergency officials estimated that one-third were still without power.

The outages have already proven to be one of the storm’s deadliest effects: Eight people died and 115 were evacuated from a Hollywood, Florida, nursing home after the air conditioning system went out during the storm. There’s now a criminal investigation into the incident. Power outages also contributed to the (relatively low) death toll from Hurricane Harvey a few weeks ago, where people suffered as lifesaving medical equipment shut off.

Two nighttime images of South Florida from NOAA and NASA’s Suomi satellite, one from from May 11 and one from September 11, right after Hurricane Irma passed through the region.
Javier Zarracina/Vox

One of the takeaways of disasters like Irma and Harvey is that these kinds of weather-related power interruptions are almost impossible to avoid. And rising average temperatures may over the long term lead to more frequent, deadly, and costly blackouts. In other words, get ready for more of this.

The question that often arises for people in the path of a storm is why power lines aren’t buried underground. After all, hurricanes and other weather events with intense winds can easily knock down power lines.

The short answer is that it’s horrendously expensive. The city of Tallahassee estimated that it would cost $2 billion to bury its lines.

A 2012 study from the Edison Electric Institute, an investor-owned utility consortium, found that it costs $174,000 per mile for rural and $11 million per mile for urban aboveground power lines.

It’s easier for utilities to focus on restoring power after storms than preventing outages during them

To move the lines underground, it would cost $1.4 million per mile in the countryside and $30 million per mile in cities.

For utilities like Florida Power & Light, the electricity utility that serves about half of the state’s 20 million residents along the southern coasts and has 90 percent of its customers within 20 miles of the coast, putting power lines underground increases risks of flood damage, so the move would only trade one hazard for another.

That means blackouts are almost guaranteed following whipping winds and torrential downpours, since a critical part of the electricity system will always be in harm’s way.

“There’s no sort of right answer to this,” said William Booth, a senior electricity adviser at the Energy Information Administration. “Each utility is in a dangerous situation.”

There are some ways utilities can “harden” infrastructure to storms, like replacing wooden utility poles with steel columns. But most are focusing on anticipating disasters and quickly dealing with damage after an outage.

“We were ready for this storm,” said Rob Gould, vice president and chief communications officer of Florida Power & Light, in a press conference. “We had an army of more than 20,000 ready to respond.”

The Edison Electric Institute said the response to Irma is “one of the largest power restoration efforts in US history.”

And lights are beginning to flicker back on. Gould said that nearly 5.1 million of his company’s customers lost power, but that the utility has already managed to restore electricity to 60 percent of them.

This puts them far ahead of schedule compared with the restoration effort after Hurricane Wilma in 2005, where 3.2 million of Florida Power & Light’s customers lost power but only 13 percent had the lights back on at the same point after the storm.

This is due in part to the utility’s $3 billion investment in bolstering its infrastructure over the past few years, according to Gould.

The response speed is also due to planning for a massive recovery effort. Utility workers from more than 30 states and Canada made their way to Florida ahead of Irma’s landfall to assist with restoration.

The Detroit, Michigan-based DTE Energy sent 570 employees, contractors, and their vehicles to deal with Irma’s damage. Florida’s call for assistance went out last Wednesday, and DTE had its trucks en route Thursday.

“I think the regions that are going to be impacted are usually proactive about requesting assistance,” said DTE spokesperson RoNeisha Mullen.

Government agencies are scrubbing climate change from power outage planning

Yet at the state and federal level, there’s considerable resistance to planning for the various impacts of extreme weather events linked to climate change.

To be sure, climate change is exacerbating the impacts of events like hurricanes. While the economic toll of this year’s storms is being calculated, the US Department of Energy estimated in 2013 that weather-related power outages cost the economy between $18 billion and $33 billion each year.

Yet Florida is continuing to build on its coasts, and public officials, like Gov. Rick Scott, have been hostile to accounting for rising seas and temperatures in planning.

Florida’s Department of Environmental Protection banned the terms “climate change” and “global warming” from official communications, and Scott has punted when asked about climate change.

At the federal level, the US Department of Energy’s much-anticipated study on grid reliability deliberately removed language noting harm from climate change between the draft and final versions.

"Events with severe consequences are becoming more frequent and intense, due to climate change, and have been the principal contributors to an observed increase in the frequency and duration of power outages in the United States," according to the draft.

The removal of this passage stands in stark contrast to the department’s past assessments of grid vulnerability under the previous administration, like this nearly 200-page report from 2015 that found climate change will “profoundly affect the U.S. energy sector.”

That means hurricane-weary denizens of the coast will want to stock up on candles and flashlights before the next storm, because more darkness lies ahead.

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