Reimaging Alabama’s power grid after Hurricane Sally: Bury power lines, use solar, electric cars

A.J. Felton was scrambling early last week to find out an estimated time in which the power would be restored to his Daphne house.

Frustrations were mounting. He was getting no feedback from his utility company and had to make do on a borrowed generator.

But despite the inconvenience that lingered for Felton more than a week after Hurricane Sally, Felton isn’t sure there is a better way for electricity to be delivered to him and his neighbors. In neighborhoods around coastal Alabama, residents and government officials have pondered whether burying electrical power lines could have avoided the massive and elongated outages.

“Given the storms that take place in this area, I wouldn’t mind but of course, as a consumer, I would want it to be as cost efficient as possible,” Felton said.

The lingering power outages in coastal Alabama, including in areas like the heavily populated and wooded Lake Forest neighborhood in Daphne, has renewed talks about whether coastal utility companies and policy makers should be discussing alternative methods to delivering electricity. The issue often focuses on whether electric companies should place overhead power lines underground.

But given the unpredictability weather events and mounting concerns about climate change, professors in Alabama and beyond are studying whether alternative energy delivery models should also include renewable and at-home energy sources like hydro, solar, wind and biomass. One University of Alabama professor is leading research into whether plug-in electric vehicles can supply power during emergencies.

“Alternatives are always a good idea in an uncertain future,” said Steven Schultz, a climatologist and assistant professor of Geography in the Department of Earth Sciences at the University of South Alabama. Schultz, like over 500,000 customers in Alabama and Florida after Hurricane Sally, was without power for days.

“While I won’t say we will be hit by more storms in the future, we certainly will have more to lose when we do get hit,” he said. “The population of the region has gone up over the past few decades with more houses and more businesses being built every year. Hurricane Frederic (1979), Ivan (2004) and Sally bulldozed Mobile and Baldwin counties. But if we were to get a Hurricane Camille (1969) or a Michael (2018) – a direct hit from a Category 5 storm – it would probably take months to get our current power grid back on track. A modernized grid would almost certainly mitigate that.”

Burying power lines

Fort Morgan damage

Hurricane Sally brought devastating winds and flooding to the Fort Morgan peninsula. The storm hit on Wednesday, September 16, 2020, and much of the area remain either water logged or without power days after the storm. In this picture, a power crew works on restoring electricity to the area on Tuesday, September 22, 2020. (John Sharp/[email protected]).

The most discussed alternative is burying power cables underground. The move would have avoided the long-term outages caused by toppled wooden power poles from Hurricane Sally, a Category 2 storm that also brought torrential rainfall. The combination of the wind and a slow-moving rain system uprooted massive trees and power poles throughout the coastal region. Thanks to mutual aid assistance from utility companies in a dozen states, the utility companies in the region were able to get all the power restored within two weeks.

The biggest drawback to burying power lines are the costs. According to the Alabama Public Service Commission – which handles the oversight of investor-owned electric utilities in Alabama, which includes Alabama Power but not Baldwin EMC or Riviera Utilities in Baldwin County – the cost of underground distribution lines can be five times that of overhead service, depending on several factors including construction terrain.

Ted Kury, director of energy services at the Washington College of Business at the University of Florida, said undergrounding the lines can cost anywhere from $250,000 to $3 million per mile.

“Unfortunately, there are no straightforward answers when it comes to protecting infrastructure,” Kury said. “Yes, above ground lines are more susceptible to damage from flying debris and wind events, but when you move them underground … you make them vulnerable to storm surge and flooding. So, you’re basically left with the question of what type of threat are you most concerned about?”

Alabama Power, which provides electricity service to Mobile, has historically relied on the overhead power lines because they are more cost effective. But company spokeswoman Beth Thomas, in an email to, said the company is evaluating options across the power system to provide the “safest, most affordable and most reliable way to serve” customers.

Alabama Power serves over 1.4 million customers with more than 84,000 miles of power lines. The state’s 23 rural electric cooperatives delivers power to 1 million customers and maintains more than 71,000 miles of power lines in Alabama. And according to Electric Cities of Alabama, another 1 million customers in 36 cities are served by municipal-owned electrical entities. Huntsville, Athens, Fairhope, Robertsdale, Opelika and Bessemer are just some of the cities that operate their own electric utility.

“As we continue to evaluate options, undergrounding new and existing lines could become a larger part of our systems solutions,” she said. Historically, she said, installing underground systems occurred during new construction at the request of a builder or a homeowner. In Baldwin County, which is the fastest growing county in Alabama, cities like Fairhope require developers who are building new residential subdivisions to put the electrical lines underground.

Some cities assess a fee on power bills to finance placing electrical lines underground. In Gulf Shores, residents have long been charged $5 on their monthly utility bills to support burying the power lines.

“That was a big reason we were able to get power to so many customers quickly,” said Grant Brown, spokesman with the city of Gulf Shores where the hurricane eyewall made landfall on September 16, causing significant flooding and wind damage. “Once we got (energy producer) Power South to re-establish the actual power to substations, Baldwin EMC was able to light up a lot of people quickly because there was no tree damage with underground power.”

Brown said the surcharge enabled the city to bury the power underground near the city’s public beach area. The city and Baldwin EMC – which serves the largest number of utility customers in Baldwin County – discuss the areas in which a buried power line is more advantageous, Brown said.

In Orange Beach, customers are charged $5.25 on monthly utility bills to assist Baldwin EMC in financing placing power lines underground. The surcharge in Orange Beach generates about $85,000 monthly, which goes directly to the utility to pay down the underground utility work, according to City Administrator Ken Grimes.

“We try and mix residential with the phases of Perdido Beach Boulevard moving westward toward Gulf State Park,” Grimes said. “Underground both sides of Beach (Boulevard) gets expensive per mile so it typically takes a few years to pay that credit off.”

Grimes said the city has a project underway that involves burying the power lines in the East Orange Beach community and would include several businesses as well as sports and recreational facilities and a welcome center.

“This has been a great relationship to better build our infrastructure to be protected and redundant during and after storm events,” Grimes aid.

Kemira plant expansion hearing

Casi Callaway, executive director with Mobile Baykeeper, speaks during a public hearing hosted by the Alabama Department of Environmental Management on Tuesday, November 27, 2018, at Chickasaw High School in Chickasaw, Alabama. (John Sharp/[email protected]).

Casi Callaway, executive director with Mobile Baykeeper, said that burying the electrical lines is the “simplest” solution toward hardening the coastal region’s vulnerable power grid. She said the power lines in the neighborhood where she lives – near Mobile Infirmary – are buried. “We had power back on by 5 p.m. on Wednesday night,” Callaway said, or about 12 hours after the storm hit.

Callaway believes that if public officials in Mobile and Baldwin counties united and pushed for an alternative electrical grid in coastal Alabama, utilities and the Public Service Commission would respond.

“If they came together and said, ‘hey utilities or hey, Public Service Commission, we want all our power lines to be buried or a collective plan on how to do this better,’ it would happen,” said Callaway. “We elect those leaders and they represent us. We don’t need those leaders to be at the mercy of the power company.”

Related: Alabama’s nation-leading 16,000 Fortified roofs held up well to Hurricane Sally

Alabama State Senator Chris Elliott, R-Daphne, had a different experience than Callaway. A property he owns in the rural Josephine community of Baldwin County was without power for over a week, despite having the power lines underground. He said a transformer was flooded out, leaving his property as the only one along the same road without power for days.

“I understand where (Callaway) is coming from, but there are also limits to underground services as well,” Elliott said, adding that he supports a market approach toward future power services. “As we build out, should we ask for underground power? Yes. You don’t see any new subdivisions with above ground power. But I think the market will drive (underground power elsewhere). Where it’s not economically feasible to put it underground, you won’t see it.”

Alternative energy backup

Solar panels in Birmingham

Solar panels at the Alabama Environmental Council’s recycling center in Birmingham.Dennis Pillion | [email protected]

Aside from burying power lines, researchers are urging policy makers to support alternative energy initiatives aimed at supporting the power grid during extreme weather events.

Sushil Adhikari, alumni professor and director of the Center for Bioenergy and Bioproducts at Auburn University, said policy makers in Alabama could do a better job at encouraging distributed energy as opposed to conventional power generation, such as large coal-burning plants. Distributed energy systems typically utilize renewable energy like solar and wind.

Alabama, as well as about nine other states in the South, does not generate any power from wind turbines. Four states in the U.S. – Texas, Oklahoma, Kansas, and Iowa – produce more than half of the nation’s wind energy.

“We need to be more open-minded, in a way, and think about the best interests and politics of what is best for our planet,” said Adhikari. “We want more reliable power. Today we sell electricity, but in the future, it will go beyond selling electricity. If I want biomass power in my house, let me have it.”

Callaway, with Mobile Baykeeper, said renewable energy sources can be effective to serve as a backup during emergency situations, and encourages more use of solar power at residential homes.

She said that Alabama’s policy makers back policies that prevent more use of renewable energies, and statistics show that very few people utilize solar energy in Alabama.

The state had 11,927 residents or 0.1% of the population, on solar energy in 2017, according to the Solar Energy Industries Association. California, which is the No. 1 user of solar power in the U.S., had 5.2 million residents utilizing solar, or about 15% of the population.

“It costs you more to have solar, which it does in Alabama per the Public Services Commission’s ruling, people don’t do it,” Callaway said. “But if I had solar on my house and the power had gone out, I would have power.”

Indeed, the Public Service Commission recently voted to support initiatives that environmentalists view as an affront to the growth of renewable fuels. In 3-0 vote that offered no explanation, the commission shot down a challenge to a so-called “solar tax” that assesses a fee on residential customers who use solar panels or other methods to generate their own electricity. The PSC also approved Alabama Power’s request to increase the fee from $5 per kilowatt per month to $5.41. For the average rooftop solar power user, the fee increases add about $27.05 per month in fees.

Alabama Power has argued that solar customers who remain connected to the power grid, need to pay the fee or else the costs of having back-up power available will be shifted to other customers.

The fee, however, is viewed as excessive by clean energy activists and moves in an opposite direction of what other states are doing. In Kansas, the state Supreme Court reversed a Kansas Corporation Commission’s approval of a higher residential rate for customers with solar power earlier this year. In December, the Georgia Public Service Commission rejected Georgia Power’s proposal to increase fees on solar users, and backed a policy viewed as beneficial toward expanding the use of solar energy within the state.

Georgia Power, like Alabama Power, is a subsidiary of Atlanta-based Southern Company.

“The technology is cheaper and far more efficient than what it was a decade ago,” said Schultz, at the University of South Alabama. He said he grew up in a house with solar panels and recalls his family never having problems with them and that they helped in reducing the costs of the monthly utility bill.

“We’ve got the climate for it, so why not use it?” said Schultz. “We’re not going to run out of the sun anytime soon.”

Electric vehicle research

Electric vehicle demonstration in Tuscaloosa

John Kisacikoglu, an assistant professor in the Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering at the University of Alabama, demonstrates to Tuscaloosa area middle school students how an electric vehicle and power a LED lamp. Kisacikoglu is researching how electric vehicles can serve as an alternative power system during emergencies like hurricanes. (photo provided by John Kisacikoglu at the University of Alabama).

Beyond existing renewable energy sources, one Alabama professor has his eyes set on an innovative approached toward restoring power following a weather-related disaster: Electric vehicles.

John Kisacikoglu, an assistant professor of electrical and computer engineering at the University of Alabama, is researching the use of electric vehicles that could be utilized as an alternative power source. The electric vehicle, in effect, would replace the fuel-burning portable generator utilized by coastal Alabama residents following Hurricane Sally – and which prompted long lines of vehicles outside convenience stores as people filled up small gas tanks.

Kisacikoglu said a fully charged electric vehicle like Nissan Leaf or Chevy Bolt, on average, can power the energy consumption of a house for 1-1/2 days. During an emergency, Kisacikoglu said, someone’s energy consumption would only be for the “critical loads in your house,” which would reduce energy consumption and extend the period that you can power a house with an electric vehicle.

“Of course, power grid is crucial and as the duration of the outage is extended, the resources will be stranded,” said Kisacikoglu. “But there might also be close-by location where power can be restored faster due to geographical advantages. An electric vehicle can make a trip to recharge itself, when needed, to those locations and return back to the affected house. It is even possible to charge an electric vehicle with another electric vehicle.”

Electric vehicles, he said, are “very clean” compared to fuel-burning generators in terms pollution and noise. Electric vehicles can also be utilized by emergency management agencies or utility companies as an emergency response tool, Kisacikoglu said, where they can be deployed to affected communities and provide power for a certain duration of time to ease difficulties with refrigeration, laundry, operating medical device, etc.

He said his team is looking at coordinating the operations of the power grid with the new technologies, like electric vehicles.

The research also comes at a time when electric vehicle sales, up until 2019, were soaring worldwide. In the U.S., with the introduction of the Tesla Model 3, electric vehicle sales rose 80% in 2018, but have declined ever since and dropped 25% during the first quarter of this year. Electric vehicle sales are still growing in Europe, however.

Kisacikoglu’s research was inspired by Hurricane Katrina in 2005, a few weeks after he arrived into the U.S. and moved into Mobile.

“I was a young man and had not seen a hurricane in my lifetime,” he recalled. “We lost power for about three days. I remember it being pretty hot and it was hard to get through. Since then, my research area is focused on how to increase the resiliency of the power grid especially considering not only these kind of high-impact, low probability events, but also the introduction of power consuming devices like electric vehicles as a renewable energy source.”

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