by SC Publisher Shannen Hayes; photos by SC Associate Publisher Chuck Larsen
Sanibel experienced power outages throughout the summer and three in September that lasted for several hours on days when there was no wind or adverse weather conditions, which have left residents and the business community frustrated.
Lee County Electric Cooperative, the island’s power provider for more than 80 years, reported the outages on Sept. 5 and Sept. 22 were due to vegetation coming into contact with the lines. The outage on Sept. 30 was caused by damage from a woodpecker.
Mayor Kevin Ruane wrote a letter to LCEC Executive Vice President and CEO Denise Vidal in which he said this “unreliability of electrical service is having a major negative economic impact on our business community, particularly the restaurants of the island, which are among our top employers.”
Vidal spoke at the Sanibel City Council meeting on Tuesday, Oct. 6, to address the three concerns Ruane outlined in his letter. “I’m very sorry you had to write the letter at all,” she said. “I apologize for the frustrations and concerns you have experienced. I recognize the concerns are even higher with a pandemic on our economy.”
Vidal reported that vegetation presents the highest risk of power outages on Sanibel. Vegetation trimming on the island already occurs more frequently at two to three years compared to the rest of the provider’s systems at three to five years. There are also bi-annual trimmings of “hotspots” or areas where vegetation is coming into contact with lines.
Vidal told council members that LCEC will review an accelerated plan for vegetation trimming on the island, as well as investigate an acceleration of pole inspections and replacements to combat future issues. She expected the increased trimming schedule to begin after the winter season. She added that LCEC will commit to a “more robust communication plan” for island customers.
In his letter, Ruane inquired about deploying the best available technology for trouble-shooting outages and reporting the cause of a system failure. He asked about the status of implementing technology that would continuously monitor the system rather than relying upon visual inspections to identify areas of failure.
Vidal said automation is not widespread in the electric network primarily due to safety concerns, but that LCEC utilizes modern technology for efficiency in many other ways. Patrols and visual inspections continue to be important, she said.
During an outage, safety and minimizing the length of time customers are without power are the top priorities for LCEC. But it takes time to “dig in” to the root cause of the outage, Vidal said. “Every outage is different, so it’s going to require a little bit different type of root cause analysis.”
Vidal told council members she viewed Tuesday’s meeting as a “starting point” to explore the areas in which LCEC and the city can work together to improve on the issues. “We do take your concerns very seriously,” she said.