Four years and 79 miles down. Seventeen years and 83.3 miles to go.
Winter Park’s initiative to underground more than 150 miles of power lines is nearly halfway complete in terms of mileage, said Jerry Warren, director of the Winter Park Electric Department.
“Everything is going steady so far,” Warren said.
Since the undergrounding push began in 2008, 10.4 miles have been completed with the help of $14.5 million in bond funding. The other 65 or so miles were already underground when the city acquired them from Progress Energy.
At the June 11 Winter Park City Commission meeting, representatives from the Electric Utility Department presented a “Go Forward Strategy” for undergrounding the remaining 83.3 miles, including a breakdown of funding and a points system to determine what lines will be buried next.
Geological location, project length, number of tree conflicts and construction type are all factors being considered in ordering the remaining 466 overhead segments that will be undergrounded in the next 17 years, Warren said. A more final order will be determined in the coming weeks.
“We’re trying to get the hardest ones out of the way first,” he said.
By doing so, Communications Director Clarissa Howard said, the city is working to first improve service in areas most prone to service interruption. Most of those outages, she and Warren agreed, almost always come from trees or tree limbs knocking into lines.
“That’s why in the point system, tree conflicts are worth so much,” Warren said, with tree conflicts warranting a possible double amount of points in the system than other factors. He also noted that the quicker tree-conflicted lines are undergrounded, the quicker the trees will no longer have to be trimmed to accommodate them.
“It means less of the V-shaped trees faster,” he said.
Every mile of line moved underground, he said, costs about $1 million to complete. That means the total undergrounding process will cost more than $75 million.
Now that bond money has run out, the city is funding the process through profits made by the Electric Utility Department. Warren says the city is adopting a “pay as you go” method as they work to finish the job in the next decade and a half. He estimates the city will be able to tackle four or five miles a year.
“That’s the benefit of our city having our own Electric Department,” he said. “What’s left over as profit doesn’t go to shareholders, but right back into our community and energy projects.”
Winter Park is one of 33 cities in Florida to control it’s own electricity. Warren estimates that, in the nation, 10 percent of cities do so.
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Mayor Ken Bradley said he is pleased with the progress of undergrounding so far and is looking forward to a day when no electrical wires will be seen blocking views above ground in Winter Park.
“It’s much more aesthetically pleasing and improves service,” he said. “It’s a great thing that over time we’ll start to see.”
Warren says he looks forward to the day when a hurricane or rough storm blows through Central Florida, and while news stations report the number of outages for each major electricity company, there will be a big zero next to Winter Park Electric Utility’s name thanks to all of the lines being underground.
“It’ll be big news,” he said, “and whether I have to hobble out with a cane, or they have to wheel me in in a wheelchair, I hope I’m around to see it.”