Power lines: Appeal vs. cost


You probably don’t think about the electric company unless the power goes out — so not all that often.

I think about Florida Power & Light when I visit certain expensive neighborhoods and see above-ground power lines. Considering that power lines are — to most people — unattractive, in addition to being vulnerable to storms, I wonder why FPL doesn’t bury them.

A lot of newer neighborhoods have underground power lines. You won’t find above-ground utilities in the neighborhoods of Lakewood Ranch, Palmer Ranch, The Oaks, and on and on.

In the cities, though, which were developed long ago, when power lines were a sign of progress, the lines are above ground — and FPL prefers them that way.

Burying power lines is much more expensive than having them above ground, said Bill Orlove, a spokesman for Florida Power & Light, at a media tour of FPL’s new Mobile Command Center last week in Palmetto.

It can cost $10 a foot to put power lines above ground, and $20 to $40 a linear foot to put them underground.

“It is cheaper to build a line above ground than it is to bury it. Aesthetically, it is more pleasing to have lines underground, but every line that you have going from a power plant is above ground,” Orlove said. “About 30 percent of our lines are underground. Those are mostly the distribution, the neighborhood lines. Our transmission lines — 230,000 volts and 500,000 volts — are not underground. Basically, it is a cost factor.”

“Undergrounding” also makes power failures harder to diagnose and fix — it can take days and weeks to find the problem, instead of just hours with above-ground lines. They are susceptible to being cut by people who dig into the ground without checking first for burying lines. This can be deadly.

But they are safe from the wind-borne debris.

Storm surge and flooding is a different issue.“It is easier to restore power overhead than it is for an underground line,” Orlove said. “If we have a large weather event and there is flooding, we can’t restore power to those communities until the water recedes, because electricity and water don’t mix.”

There are other issues with undergrounding. Service cannot easily be upgraded if more power is needed. And the voltage is more difficult to control.

Still, I think if I had a mansion on the water and there were power lines out front, I would be pushing the idea of undergrounding to the HOA. Heck, it’s $4,000 per 100-foot lot, divided by two, because the guy across the street benefits, too. And the lines are only on one side of the street.

But maybe he doesn’t live in a mansion.

Harold Bubil

Recipient of the 2015 Bob Graham Architectural Awareness Award from the American Institute of Architects/Florida-Caribbean, Harold Bubil is real estate editor of the Herald-Tribune Media Group. Born in Newport, R.I., his family moved to Sarasota in 1958. Harold graduated from Sarasota High School in 1970 and the University of Florida in 1974 with a degree in journalism. For the Herald-Tribune, he writes and edits stories about residential real estate, architecture, green building and local development history. He also is a photographer and public speaker. Contact him via email, or at (941) 361-4805.
Last modified: June 7, 2015
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