Would you be willing to double your JEA bill for faster restoration?

Trustees consider cost of making entire Jacksonville grid underground lines

JACKSONVILLE, Fla. – JEA intends to spend $30 million over the next four years to “significantly reduce” the time it takes for the Jacksonville-based utility to restore power after an outage -- not just in normal weather, but after severe weather events.

There was a discussion during Tuesday's Board of Directors meeting about the utility’s storm-hardening initiatives and the cost-effectiveness of putting more power lines underground moving forward. 

"Anytime we have tough storm season, there's always a lot of talk about why we can't do more undergrounding," said Mike Brost, vice president and general manager of JEA's Electric Systems.

JEA cited 12 studies of the costs versus benefits of overhead and underground electric distribution. All came to the same conclusion -- any net benefits are insufficient to recover higher investment costs.

JEA has 7,000 miles of power lines, and 56 percent of them are underground.

The utility estimates it would cost $6.6 billion to convert the remaining 3,000 miles of overhead lines to underground lines, resulting in a 100 percent rate increase for customers.

If JEA converted only 2,000 miles in residential areas, it would cost $3.4 billion, with a 
50 percent rate hike. 

"The biggest challenge with underground is the upfront cost and the ongoing cost. So there's no question that underground systems perform better than overhead systems during storms, particularly major storms," Brost said. "The challenges, it's extremely expensive to put in on the front-end and finding a funding source has always been elusive."

JEA likes underground, but also admits there’s a downside beyond the upfront cost.

"When you do have outages on the underground system -- since it's buried, it's not up in the air where you can see it like overhead -- it does take longer to find, troubleshoot and repair the problem," Brost said. "And, generally, the repairs are most costly." 

Shortly after Hurricane Irma in September, JEA announced customers would not have to pay more to cover hurricane recovery costs. On Tuesday, Florida Power & Light made a similar announcement, saying savings from the federal tax overhaul will allow it to avoid billing customers for the $1.3 billion cost of restoring electricity after Irma. 

For now, the Board of Directors is taking all of the information presented at Tuesday's meeting under advisement.

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