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Push for underground power lines passes

Utilities must submit 10-year plans to ‘harden’ power grid against hurricanes.

The Florida Senate took the last step in approving a bill that will require electric utilities to draw up and follow long-term plans to bury electric lines and harden the state’s power grid against hurricanes.

The Senate voted 39-1 Thursday to approve SB 796 sent back by the Florida House after it added a couple of amendments. The Senate sponsor, Republican Joe Gruters of Sarasota, support the House amendments as improvements, characterizing them to the Senate as creating more transparency in the state’s oversight.

Gruters said lawmakers are taking a “long-range approach” to strengthen the state’s electric system. Gruters and other supporters of the bill have pointed, in part, to economic losses caused by major power outages.

“It’s a public safety issue. It’s a resiliency issue,” he said.

SB 797 requires Florida’s electric utilities to develop and submit 10-year plans to the Public Service Commission to harden their grids against hurricanes and other powerful storms that have knocked out power for millions for weeks.

That goal would mean that Floridians might expect fewer and shorter power outages in the future.

“It’s so important to taking this long-range approach to making our state more resilient, and making sure we have an electrical grid that is as strong as we can possibly be,” Gruters said. “I want you to remember the figure $1 billion a day every time our state gets hit by a storm and a third of our state goes out.”

But it also would mean that Floridians can expect to pay more for electricity.

The bill would allow utilities to seek rate increases through “clause rate” hike requests through the Florida Public Service Commission, while the hardening currently is being done through base rates, largely absorbed by the utilities. Opponents have charged that the clause rate would amount to automatic approvals passing through the costs of grid-hardening.

That’s presumably why Democratic state Sen. Jose Javier Rodriguez of Miami voted no. When the bill initially was debated and approved by the Florida Senate last week, and then sent to the House, Rodriguez cast one of two no votes, after arguing that the clause rate provision would unfairly allow utilities to pass along more of their storm-hardening costs to consumers.

Rodriguez had argued that utilities already are burying power lines and hardening the state’s power system, but paying most of the costs. He did not debate the bill Thursday before casting his vote.

The bills plan for a 30-year effort to harden Florida’s power grid, and the clause rate provision was sought by the utilities to give them assurance in their investments, and opposed by the Florida Power Users Group, which represents industrial-sized power customers.

Supporters contend that power outages have massive costs. In addition to the costs of restoring electricity, they argue the economy is hurt when outages hit businesses.

“This is what I do know, right now we spend billions of dollars every time the power goes out to get it back on,” House sponsor Randy Fine, a Palm Bay Republican, said during a House discussion this week. “Those of you who lived through Irma remember we import hundreds, if not thousands, if not tens of thousands of people to come down here to get our utilities back on. That costs hundreds and hundreds of millions of dollars. To some degree, a lot of that goes away if we do this.”

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The News Service of Florida contributed to this post.

Written By

Scott Powers is an Orlando-based political journalist with 30+ years’ experience, mostly at newspapers such as the Orlando Sentinel and the Columbus Dispatch. He covers local, state and federal politics and space news across much of Central Florida. His career earned numerous journalism awards for stories ranging from the Space Shuttle Columbia disaster to presidential elections to misplaced nuclear waste. He and his wife Connie have three grown children. Besides them, he’s into mystery and suspense books and movies, rock, blues, basketball, baseball, writing unpublished novels, and being amused. Email him at scott@floridapolitics.com.

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