Bury 'em: Utility chief favors underground power lines - Florida Politics

Bury ’em: Utility chief favors underground power lines

For years (or even decades), Florida environmentalists have faulted investor-owned utilities for a reluctance to embrace solar power in the Sunshine State.

But that’s beginning to change, with no utility doing more on that front than Tampa Electric Company.

Soon after Canadian energy firm Emera purchased TECO last year for $10.4 billion, the Tampa-based utility announced plans to add six million solar panels in 10 new photovoltaic solar projects across its service territory in West Central Florida.

“I’m amazed that the price of these solar panels keeps dropping and dropping,” said Emera Technologies Inc. CEO Rob Bennett in a speech Friday at Tampa’s Oxford Exchange, part of the weekly Café Con Tampa series.

Costs for solar power have gone down dramatically in recent years, a leading factor why TECO (and to a lesser degree other Florida power companies) is now starting to embrace solar power, after initially rejecting its appeal.

In total, TECO projects it will install 600 megawatts (MW) of photovoltaic solar energy to its fleet, creating enough electricity to power more than 100,000 homes. When complete, nearly 7 percent of TECO’s energy generation will come from the sun — a higher percentage of solar than any other Florida utility.

Bennett said he’s trying to figure out how cheap solar panels can get, and now it’s about the cost of glass, the biggest part of the solar panel.

“I don’t know where the bottom is going to be, but it’s amazing,” Bennett said. “The idea of solar panels being cheaper than roofing panels is completely real. And that drives change and choice.”

Emera has a record of providing alternative energy in Nova Scotia, in part, Bennett acknowledged, because the Canadian government mandates that 40 percent of all power must come from renewable technologies.

Beyond that, Emera has set an equally ambitious goal — to bring the eastern Caribbean island of Barbados to one hundred percent renewables by 2045.

TECO, Bennett said, is also proposing to phase out coal at its Big Bend power plant in Apollo Beach, replacing it with natural gas. But the company still needs to generate fossil fuels until other technologies advance, he added.

Cities like Sarasota, Orlando and St. Petersburg have set similar goals for complete reliance on renewable energy sources in the coming decades.

“TECO is the only utility at this point in time that looks like it will be a partner in Tampa reaching that goal, as opposed to the other utilities that need to catch up,” said Phil Compton, senior organizing representative at Sierra Club Florida.

While the talk of solar was indeed encouraging, what Bennett said next was even more noteworthy: TECO must find a way to begin to install power lines underground.

Acknowledging that underground power lines will be expensive, Bennett told the crowd the technologies to put such systems below ground are better today than they were two decades ago, and will become better over the next two decades.

“My mission is to figure that out and find the cheapest way to put it underground,” he said.

After Hurricane Irma barreled through Florida in September, millions of Floridians lost power for days — some for more than a week — prompting calls from citizens (and some government officials) throughout the state, urging utilities to consider moving power lines underground.

Bennett pointed out his recent job change, becoming CEO of a Tampa startup called Emera Technologies, tasked with developing technologies to enhance the ability to put the power system underground and making them more resilient.

“Just because there’s a storm, even a hurricane, there’s no reason for the power to go out,” Bennett said.

One item not referenced at all during Bennett’s appearance was TECO’s recent fine and citation by federal authorities due to an investigation into an accident last June at the Big Bend plant, which led to the deaths of five workers.

Last month, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration issued Tampa Electric a “willful” violation — its most serious type of citation— given only to companies that either intentionally disregards its rules or act with indifference toward employee safety.

OSHA also fined TECO $126,749 for ignoring its own safety rules.

More workers have died in Tampa Electric’s power plants over the last 20 years than in those run by any other Florida electric utility, the Tampa Bay Times reported.

Mitch Perry has been a reporter with Extensive Enterprises since November of 2014. Previously, he served five years as political editor of the alternative newsweekly Creative Loafing. Mitch also was assistant news director with WMNF 88.5 FM in Tampa from 2000-2009, and currently hosts MidPoint, a weekly talk show, on WMNF on Thursday afternoons. He began his reporting career at KPFA radio in Berkeley and is a San Francisco native who has lived in Tampa since 2000. Mitch can be reached at mitch.perry@floridapolitics.com.

1 Comment

  1. We citizens have been arguing for undergrounding the electric lines since before TECO’s last contract renewal. We found that the cost to actually move the lines underground was significantly less than projected and the primary hurdle was what to do with all the poles.

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