Undergrounding Our Utilities - An Update


By: Susan Keegan Gary, Civic Association Director. 


The power outages resulting from hurricanes Jeanne & Wilma caused many island residents to be without power for up to three weeks.  Many of us remember vividly the hardship caused by those storms.







In spite of hurricane-free weather since that time, we continue to experience power outages in Palm Beach on a regular basis in perfectly good weather.  In recent weeks, we lost power at our home on two separate occasions for durations lasting three plus hours.

The outages disrupt security, fire, and gas alarm systems, sensitive electronics and medical equipment. The exposed power lines and equipment themselves pose hazardous conditions. One neighbor watched in horror as a palm tree in her yard was set ablaze by the Florida Power and Light (FPL) equipment. When she called our Fire Department to extinguish the flames; they reported this was a regular occurrence in Town!  

During the past decade, the Town of Palm Beach has undertaken various efforts to study undergrounding the power lines.

Town residents also seem interested in undergrounding.  In January 2014 nearly 100 residents attended a Civic Association sponsored workshop at the Beach Club. A presentation was made by than Deputy Town Manager, Tom Bradford who explained that the Town established a process for individual streets or neighborhoods to accomplish undergrounding. These individual projects required residents to organize the efforts. In spite of the work required by individual residents, several groups approached the Town to start projects. One undergrounding project on Everglades Island was completed using this approach.

A good start but hardly an efficient solution for the entire Town, one might argue!

Current Situation

Interestingly enough, Florida Power and Light appeared before the Palm Beach Town Council on October 14, 2014 requesting to “harden” the Town’s older wooden utility poles.  

FPL stated they were required by the Florida Public Service Commission to improve reliability of the electrical grid in response to the hurricanes of the last decade. The deadline for a decision was fast approaching and FPL needed direction from the Town Council on whether to “harden” or underground.

FPL showed photos of the proposed “hardened” lines. There were audible gasps from the audience; the new concrete “hardened” poles were clearly much taller and considerably more obtrusive than the older wooden poles.

There was another significant factor mentioned by FPL; they noted that Town-sponsored projects would be eligible to receive a 25% discount if projects were at least “three pole miles” in length (pole miles refers to the length of the FPL’s lines). This provided further inducement for the Town.

Representatives of the Palm Beach Civic Association, the Citizen’s Association and many in the audience, urged the Council to proceed with undergrounding at that meeting.

All five Council members agreed to reject the “hardening” option and to move forward on the undergrounding at the Town Council meeting in October 2014.

At  a subsequent Council meeting on  November 13, 2014 Council members approved a recommendation to extend the contract of an existing consultant to develop individual project and program sequencing plans and initiate coordination with other utilities, towns, etc. that would be impacted by the program.

The consultants are scheduled to complete their reports at the end of April 2015. If the schedule remains on target, the recommendations will be presented to the Council at their May meeting.

The most challenging issues- cost estimates & financing are not yet on the Council’s agenda.

At the current pace, it is estimated to take approximately seven to ten years before the undergrounding program is completed across our Town.

Going Forward

I, for one, would love to see this entire program “fast-tracked”. There are many innovative approaches that the design and construction industry has to offer. Maybe it is time to explore these?

I suggest the Town sponsor an “Industry Day”—where the major designers and contractors with the necessary expertise and experience on comparable sized projects - can explain to us how they could accomplish this program cheaper & faster! We might learn there is a better way.

My patience wears thin every time I experience another power outage!

What do you think?