April 2020

Out of Sight! Palmetto Electric line burial project coming to an end

Author: Linda S. Hopkins | Photographer: M.Kat Photography

A Cleaner Look for Pope Avenue
A recent shot taken on Pope Avenue shows a cleaner look with no overhead power lines dangling from above.

Look up! It happened so gradually, perhaps you didn’t notice. Since 2004, Palmetto Electric Cooperative has been working steadily and methodically to remove overhead power lines and poles on Hilton Head Island and replace them with an underground network that is not only more aesthetically appealing but more resilient. Within the next month or so, depending on the weather, the project is expected to be complete, with all distribution lines buried underground—the only remaining overhead equipment the transmission lines owned by Santee Cooper.

“Aesthetically, it has made this island so beautiful,” Missy Santorum, Palmetto Electric Co-op’s public relations manager said. “When it happens slowly, we take it for granted, right?”

But the before and after pictures tell of a dramatic transformation that speaks to the ideals of Charles Fraser and the early developers of Hilton Head Island, whose master plan and overarching vision was to preserve and maintain the natural beauty that continues to set us apart today.

“Particularly when you see the tree canopy come back over the road.” Tray Hunter, Palmetto Electric Co-op’s VP of marketing and PR said.

According to Hunter, the Town of Hilton Head Island has been “a tremendous partner.” With a projected cost of $34.77 million, the long-term project, that was begun under Mayor Peeples, has been primarily funded by franchise fees collected by the town.

“It started with the franchise agreement that provides the privilege of doing business with the town and operating on the roads and rights of way,” Town Manager Steve Riley said. “The amount that was originally set was really low—a flat dollar amount per year and not a percentage of revenue, which is what most of them are based on.”

When it came time for renewal, Mayor Tom Peeples proposed the idea to amend the agreement and fund the line burial project. “We talked about it in terms of aesthetics and in terms of a storm mitigation effort [doing something positive for the community that would relate to electrical service] and burying the power lines was the idea we came up with,” Riley said. “Palmetto Electric was excited. The bill went up a little bit, but it went toward something that really serves our community.”

“We appreciate the town’s vision and willingness to partner with us. Of course, we appreciate all of our members and have system improvements underway around our service area,” Berl Davis, Palmetto Electric Co-op’s president and CEO said. Upon completion of the project, 3,574 poles and 1,238 overhead transformers will have been removed, 1,790 service conversions completed, and 115 miles of overhead lines replaced with underground lines.

“It’s been amazing to me how we set a time for 15 years, and here we are at 15 years, and the money has actually matched up with the estimates,” Riley said. “It has been positive aesthetically, and it is pretty cool that it’s all come together the way we hoped.”

“It’s been a huge process,” Hunter said. “The aesthetics of it is one thing, but also the storm resiliency. We’re still subject to uprooted trees and water damage to transformers, but we’re better able to withstand strong winds, and the recovery is faster.”

Before: Pope Avenue

In many situations, underground service can reduce outages. However, underground doesn’t mean outage-proof, Davis explained. “Ultimately, all service is overhead. Even with the conversion project complete, the power distributed from substations still comes through overhead transmission lines, like those suspended on the steel towers you see when you cross onto the island. Palmetto Electric Cooperative does not maintain those lines; Santee Cooper does. If there’s a problem on the transmission side, large numbers of members may lose service.”

In addition to the power line burial, since Hurricane Irma in 2017, Palmetto Electric Cooperative has undertaken a project to improve service by replacing many of the green transformer and switch boxes located in flood-prone areas and elevating them in the process.

“Flood plains have changed since they were originally put in,” Hunter explained, recalling difficulty even locating some of the transformers in the wake of Irma’s severe flooding that left approximately 15,000 members in southern Beaufort County without power.

“We really have to compliment our linemen,” Santorum said, pointing out that April is Lineman Appreciation Month. Linemen are the people braving the elements and working around the clock to restore power when you and your family are safely tucked away during an evacuation. And they are the ones who answer calls to get your power back on whenever and for whatever reason an outage occurs.

“Trust us, we don’t like outages any more than you,” Davis said. “When they occur, we do everything in our power to get your power back on as quickly and safely as possible.”

Unless your lights are out or you are paying your bill, chances are, you rarely think about your electrical service or where it comes from. Next time you drive along U.S. 278 on Hilton Head Island or head down Pope Avenue to the beach, take a moment to appreciate Palmetto Electric Cooperative for a job well done. Look up and enjoy the clear, uncluttered view.

Learn more at https://www.palmetto.coop/.

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