In the dark and sweaty aftermath of Hurricane Irma a year ago, Duke Energy assured its Tampa Bay customers that cuts to its tree-trimming budget did not make widespread outages even worse.
But records show the utility company is now throwing more money at tree maintenance than it has in at least five years. Duke has planned to spend about $36 million, or $5.4 million more for vegetation work across its service area.
That includes an additional $3 million in the region covering Pinellas and Pasco counties, where 520,000 people were left without power after Irma.
The company would not say the bump is tied to its struggles during Irma. The proof, though, seems to be in the funding.
"That was a big part of the outage issue and the extended recovery time because of the downed trees and limbs that weren’t maintained," said Pinellas County Commission Chairman Ken Welch. "We have the power company’s attention, and you are seeing resources re-allocated in the way that they should be."
Irma eviscerated Florida’s power grid, knocking out electricity to 6.7 million customers. Utilities and regulators are now reevaluating how to best secure the system before the next storm. They have said the main culprit during Irma was trees splitting and swaying, bumping into lines and downing power poles across the state.
Tampa Electric, in Hillsborough County, has budgeted $4 million more for tree-trimming in 2018, records show. The Public Service Commission, which oversees energy companies, has suggested exploring an expansion of the areas where utilities can cut trees and noted that underground lines performed better in the storm.
"As we evaluate the devastating effects of Hurricane Irma and the threat of more extreme storms in the future," said Ana Gibbs, a Duke spokeswoman, "we are absolutely determined to get better."
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Utility companies file long reliability reports with the state, which include budget figures each March for what they call vegetation management. Electrical workers regularly trim trees and spray herbicides to keep branches and foliage from disrupting the power grid.
In 2016, Duke allocated $7.4 million for the program in its "south coastal" region, which includes Pinellas and Pasco, records show. Last year, according to the company’s latest report, Duke budgeted $8 million on vegetation work in the area, only slightly more than 2016 and still down from 2013, 2014 and 2015.
Duke’s plan for 2018, according to a filing from March, is to dedicate more than $11 million.
Gibbs, the Duke spokeswoman, attributed the difference to regular fluctuations in the company’s trimming cycles, increased funding for hazard trees and contractors charging more.
But not Hurricane Irma.
Some local leaders say the change is obvious, and welcome.
"It’s never a bad thing to hear that they’ve increased their spending on vegetation management," said St. Petersburg Mayor Rick Kriseman. "Whether we had a storm last year or not, it’s a good thing."
U.S. Rep. Gus Bilirakis, R-Palm Harbor, met with Duke leaders about the outages and tree-trimming after the hurricane, said a spokeswoman for his office, Summer Robertson. He represents a district that includes parts of Pinellas and Pasco and "was concerned that some of the power outages experienced throughout the Tampa Bay area could have been avoided with enhanced maintenance."
Bilirakis "is pleased to see Duke respond to his feedback, which was echoed by many customers, by increasing these critical activities," Robertson wrote in a statement.
State Sen. Darryl Rouson, D-St. Petersburg, said he thinks "they’re taking appropriate and critical steps now to prevent a repeat of last year’s situation by increasing the budget."
Rouson’s district covers parts of Hillsborough County, too, where Tampa Electric is the dominant energy supplier. The company last year had 200,000 fewer outages after Irma in an area with 60,000 more customers than Duke’s Pinellas-Pasco zone. It also dedicated about $3 million more to vegetation management in 2016, according to state reports.
Tampa Electric’s tree-trimming budget also fluctuates, a spokeswoman said.
"The exact number of miles trimmed — and their cost — can vary each year, and the budget adjusts accordingly," said spokeswoman Cherie Jacobs.
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After Hurricane Irma, Florida’s state and emergency leaders vowed to improve their response for future storms. Utilities were a focal point.
The Public Service Commission completed a 61-page review of hurricane preparedness, which showed that falling trees and uprooted vegetation caused many of the power outages. But the report said that most of that debris "came from outside the utilities’ rights of way."
Power companies typically work through easements that allow them to clear trees around their lines. To cut back foliage beyond those easements, Gibbs said, they generally need permission from property owners.
Duke has said it is impossible to know exactly how many of its Irma outages were the direct result of tree damage. But it had a consultant analyze broken poles after the storm, Gibbs said, and estimated that 70 percent of the damage came from trees — most of which were outside the rights of way.
Moving forward, the Public Service Commission has suggested several ways for utilities to improve the strength of the power grid before the next storm. They include better educating customers on when and where utilities trim, versus where residents are responsible for tree maintenance.
Regulators also have suggested that the state Legislature could consider broadening where utilities can cut trees around their rights of way — something Rouson said he might explore if it would help reduce outages and improve public safety during the next storm.
Another focus is burying parts of the power grid. Regulators found that underground lines performed better during Hurricane Irma, though they are not storm-proof and often take longer to repair when damaged. Duke and Florida Power & Light, another regional energy giant, have already undertaken efforts to expand the burying of power lines, according to the Public Service Commission. Gibbs said some of that work is happening in Pinellas.
Tampa Electric supports using underground lines as well, according to its spokesperson, Jacobs, but doing so costs about $1 million per mile to install, forcing the utility to "balance between cost-effectiveness and impact to customer rates."
Across the bay, Duke customers already pay some of the Florida’s highest electric rates.
"In some communities undergrounding utilities makes complete sense. In other communities, it is a less practical solution," said state Rep. Chris Sprowls, a Palm Harbor Republican who sat on a special House committee that looked at preparedness after Irma, in a statement. "I believe there is a deep, widespread commitment from everyone to be better prepared for when the storm we hope never comes finally arrives."
It will be difficult to determine just how effective improvements are before that next disaster.
"You’re not going to know how good a system is hardened until the next storm hits," said J.R. Kelly, the public counsel who represents the state’s utility customers. "It’s sort of like buying a used car and you’re going to drive it from here to California. You don’t know how it’s going to hold up until you get on the road and start driving."
Contact Zachary T. Sampson at [email protected] or (727) 893-8804. Follow @ZackSampson.