With an eye toward encouraging storm-hardening the state’s electrical system, which suffered serious damage in the 2005 hurricane season, the Florida Public Service Commission granted Florida Power & Light the authority to partner with local governments to bury power lines.

“With what weather forecasters have said we can expect with hurricane cycles during the next 25 to 30 years, we feel underground is the way to go,” says FPL spokeswoman Mayco Villafana. “We thought offering this as an incentive was the best possible way to get some cities with overhead services interested.”

The tariff change, approved as a pilot program, allows FPL to give sponsoring communities a 25% credit on the cost of converting from overhead to underground service. That amount equates to Juno Beach-based FPL’s anticipated system-wide savings in storm recovery costs. FPL rates would increase for a 1,000 kW-hour residence by about 0.2%, says Villafana.

“The 25% credit is certainly designed to provide an incentive for local governments to move overhead power lines underground,” says Todd Brown, PSC spokeman. “The commission believes undergrounding is one viable option that can be used as a means for strengthening the state's electric infrastructure.”

Governments would pay 75% of the cost, rather than the previous 100%. Fifty-nine communities have expressed interest. If all move forward, FPL expects completion will cost $700 million and take years.

The pilot initiative will expire in October 2008. The commission anticipates receiving more data about costs and benefits of undergrounding by then, including results from a study being conducted by the Public Utility Research Center at the University of Florida in Gainesville. The commission has required FPL to file a report with updated information about storm restoration costs at least 60 days before the tariff expires. At that time, the utility can petition the PSC to continue, modify or discontinue the tariff.

Underground work could be performed or headed up by FPL, the municipality building to FPL standards or by a combination of the two. FPL has not hired an outside engineering or management firm at this point.

At least one community is ready to act. Jupiter Island Mayor Charles Falcone hopes work can begin this summer on his town’s project and to have it completed within two years. Voters there already have approved, by 93%, a bond referendum to pay for its more than $10 million share to bury 12 miles of primary line, serving 400 homes.

“We want power lines underground and are willing to pay for that, and the reason is reliability,” Falcone says.

Palm Beach also has indicated an interest. FPL’s ballpark estimate to bury that town’s 40 miles of lines comes to $32 million. A survey conducted by the town last fall indicated that 83% of its residents supported undergrounding, 10% were opposed and 7% had no opinion.

About 37% of FPL’s lines are underground, and it buries 70% of lines in new developments. Villafana acknowledges that flooding can adversely affect an underground system, but the company still believes it is the best way to proceed. With high winds, underground is more resilient.

“We love underground,” Villafana says. “It is not the end all or a silver bullet, but it has its pluses when it comes to natural disasters such as hurricanes.”