Local energy companies using new technologies to prevent unnecessary power outages

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Posted at 4:54 PM, May 27, 2021
and last updated 2021-05-27 16:54:00-04

Power outages are often one of the biggest headaches when it comes to storm season, whether during a hurricane, or severe weather in general. So year over year, our local energy companies continue to work to provide the latest and greatest technology, in order to avoid more power outages than necessary.

What works for one area may not work for the other, but in the Town of Longboat Key, they think they’ve found their answer. Crews are working to move all of the town's power lines underground.

“We’re undergrounding everything that’s aerial,” said Tom Harmer, Town Manager for the Town of Longboat Key.

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They’re taking all of the power and internet lines across the entire island and moving all of that underground, hoping that helps limit outages during our regular summer storm season, and especially during hurricane season.

“During Tropical Storm Eta, we had a major power line down off of Gulf of Mexico Drive that shut down the roadway and we had to detour traffic. As we move through and start to replace these with underground, then those types of situations won’t occur,” said Harmer.

It’s something voters approved funding for in two separate elections, in an effort to improve safety, reliability and aesthetics. And now the town is about halfway through the project which is set for completion in December 2022.

“During storm events, the power company of coastal barrier islands may turn off the power during the initial impacts of the storm when it’s actually hitting the coastal barrier island, but then post-storm it’s a much quicker recovery process to reestablish power, because basically if everything’s clear from a physical perspective, it’s just a matter of flipping a switch,” said James Linkogle, Projects Manager for the Town of Longboat Key.

Homeowner Fred Kagi is hoping it’s that easy, after suffering through Irma’s power outages and Eta’s floods, he says he’s skeptical of the technology but he hopes it is the solve-all solution.

“I hope that they’re right… Longer power outages can be extremely life-threatening, not just inconvenient. There’s a difference between inconvenience and being life-threatening, and when you have an older population, you need to factor that in,” said Fred Kagi, who lives on Longboat Key.

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Now let’s expand outside the Town of Longboat Key, converting aerial power lines underground is a lot easier when you’re talking about a ten-mile island.

But Duke Energy and Tampa Electric cover tens of thousands of miles of line. They’ve each been undergrounding targeted areas for years.

“We analyze data over 10 years to see how that line is performing, and it’s a very small area that we identify that might perform better underground,” said Ana Gibbs, Spokesperson for Duke Energy.

“We’re using a very complicated algorithm to look at the past history of the equipment, right? What is the tree canopy in this neighborhood, what is the wind zone, how has this equipment fared in previous storms, those types of things,” said Cherie Jacobs, Spokesperson for TECO.

Each company has about 45 percent of their lines underground already, and they continue to underground around 100 miles of line each year. But for these companies, it isn’t the solution at all.

“Underground lines are more reliable than overhead lines… the downside of underground power lines is that when there is a problem when there is an outage on an underground line, it’s harder to find, and it’s harder to fix,” said Jacobs.

Undergrounding lines are one item in a big toolbox of technologies aimed at limiting outages. Other things include tree trimming.

“Trees are the leading cause of power outages during blue skies and gray,” said Jacobs.

And installing smart meters, which allow the companies to see your individual home.

“During a storm, we can tell whether or not your lights are on,” said Gibbs.

Another important tool is self-healing technology.

“Just like you use your GPS system to move around, for example, an accident, and get around that quicker, our lines are what we call “self-healing technology," where if a tree does fall on a line, it is able to reroute itself without us having to do anything, and that quickly is able to restore power to many of our customers and prevent as much as 75 percent of outages than we previously could,” said Gibbs.

Just last year, that reduced Duke Energy power outages by about 19 million minutes, or 36 years. Around half of Duke Energy’s lines are self-healing already, and by 2027, that increases to 80 percent.

Technology only improving with time.