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Winter 2017

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Overhead power lines are an everyday sight. Soon, Pawleys Island residents will have a new look as the island converts to under-ground power lines.
Overhead power lines are an everyday sight. Soon, Pawleys Island residents will have a new look as the island converts to under-ground power lines.

Going Underground

President John F. Kennedy is quoted as saying “Change is the law of life and those who look only to the past or present are certain to miss the future.”  The residents of Pawleys Island know something about change and are making a change that will benefit future generations. They are embracing a new look on the island they call home. It’s a look that honors the island’s past, its mission and its culture. It also welcomes in a more reliable future.

The residents of Pawleys Island are working together to bury utility lines beneath the sand that has covered their property for hundreds of years. When complete, the project will offer an unobstructed view of the beauty of the island.

Franchise conversion projects, or converting overhead distribution power lines to underground power lines, take place in many cities and towns that Santee Cooper serves. Depending on the particular franchise contract, many entities use the franchise fee money collected and matched by Santee Cooper to bury sections of utility lines in their communities. 

Richie Shelley with Sumter Utilities, the company contracted for the Pawleys Island project, pushes wire through conduit in a subsurface enclosure. These enclosures keep site lines clean and reduce the visual disturbance of the underground lines and equipment.
Richie Shelley with Sumter Utilities, the company contracted for the Pawleys Island project, pushes wire through conduit in a subsurface enclosure. These enclosures keep site lines clean and reduce the visual disturbance of the underground lines and equipment.

The decision to put utility lines underground is a decision many find easy to make. “It may be because in addition to the aesthetics, underground power lines generally have reduced outages resulting in increased reliability,” said Neil James, manager of distribution operations for Santee Cooper. “While not immune to equipment failures and outages associated with dig-ins, they have limited exposure to outage-causing culprits such as trees, lightning, wind and animals.”

Just like the town, the Pawleys Island project is very unique.  For one, this whole island is predominately residential, where other cities and towns typically convert Main Street, downtown or commercial areas along the Grand Strand to underground power lines.

Mayor William Otis was a true visionary for the Pawleys project. He believed the residents would be happy with the results if he could help them see that it would not disturb the look and feel of the land they call home. Otis is happy the project is moving along and very proud of how the community has united to make this a reality.

“Pawleys Island is a community of property and homeowners coming together to make these changes that give them the improved look and reliability of underground lines,” he said. “But more importantly, they are doing it in a way that maintains the integrity, grace and history of the island we love.”

Tracy Hartfield with Sumter Utilities, a Santee Cooper contractor ensures the formula to keep the sand from caving in is just right as he bores conduit into the ground on the southern end of the island.
Tracy Hartfield with Sumter Utilities, a Santee Cooper contractor ensures the formula to keep the sand from caving in is just right as he bores conduit into the ground on the southern end of the island.

One of the first things that had to be decided was how to fund the project. There was money available in their franchise fund but not nearly enough to cover the costs associated with burying over 30 miles of lines and conduit on an island less than four miles long. Although they were embarking on a major new conversion plan, changing overhead to underground lines was a project the Town of Pawleys Island had really been working on for years. 

Power lines first appeared on the island in the early-1900s, allowing for electric appliances, lights, heating and air conditioning. In the mid to late 90s, a small group of 25 property owners requested to have lines buried underground on their property and paid for the conversion themselves. Then in 2009, Santee Cooper began converting a section that included a portion of the historical district from the South Cause-way Road to an area known as the Birds Nest. There were 52 property owners who split the cost with the town to complete this conversion project. Once this section was completed and residents on the island saw the difference it made, the remaining homeowners began to consider the benefits of converting the entire island to underground power.

Ryan Fabbri with the Town of Pawley’s Island and Santee Cooper Engineer III David Robinett meet regularly to discuss the underground conversion project. They are optimistic the project will finish in 2018.
Ryan Fabbri with the Town of Pawley’s Island and Santee Cooper Engineer III David Robinett meet regularly to discuss the underground conversion project. They are optimistic the project will finish in 2018.

In 2013 town officials, including the mayor and the town council, met with Santee Cooper to discuss financing possibilities for putting electrical structures underground on the remainder of the island. In addition, the town wanted to make sure it made any assessed homeowner fees fair to those who had previously paid to have underground installations. The group decided Santee Cooper would use available franchise money and the town and its residents would split the remainder of the cost.

“After evaluating multiple payment options and phasing scenarios, the Town of Pawleys Island agreed to finance this project on their own,” said Ray Pinson, manager of local government and community relations for Santee Cooper. “We are satisfied that the town moved forward with the option that works best for the largest majority of residents.”

Once the funding was in place, the first phase of the project began. With it came the challenge of placing lines underground without disturbing the natural landscape. But before the first line could be buried, permits and easements had to be obtained.

This meant Santee Cooper and the Town of Pawleys Island had to work with homeowners to obtain more than 420 individual property easements, which is quite a different process than when a city or state can grant a blanket easement for this type of underground access.

Santee Cooper Construction and Maintenance Planner Donnie Sellers and Mike Lockamy with Sumter Utilities discuss some of the day-to-day challenges of pulling cable underground along Atlantic Avenue in Pawleys Island.
Santee Cooper Construction and Maintenance Planner Donnie Sellers and Mike Lockamy with Sumter Utilities discuss some of the day-to-day challenges of pulling cable underground along Atlantic Avenue in Pawleys Island.

“Almost every homeowner approaches this process differently,” said Pawleys Island Town Administrator Ryan Fabbri. “But at the end of the day, we have been able to work through each and every issue and guide them through the process so that they understand what we need and what it will accomplish.”

David Robinett, engineer III with Santee Cooper, has been working closely with Fabbri for years. As they see each phase completed they are encouraged that the entire project will finish on time, which should be by summer 2018. Like most conversion projects, work has to stop between Memorial Day and Labor Day because of tourist season, adding to the pressure of getting as much done as possible in the off season.

“Other challenges we have faced are obtaining proper environmental permits. For example, Army Corps of Engineers permits for the North and South Causeways and the Pritchard Street and Waterford Road bores under the marsh had to be obtained,” said Robinett. “We have also made sure proper erosion control, like mats and silt fencing around delineated wetland areas, are in place, inspected and maintained.”

In addition to the items above, Santee Cooper was involved in the design of this project.  “Our design and construction team assisted the town with design decisions on the Pawleys Island conversion project,” said Gregg Turbeville, general supervisor of distribution design for Santee Cooper. “We were able to use our expertise and skill sets from other franchise projects, and from our own internal projects, to assist them in completing the various stages of this conversion.”

This complex design on paper is taking shape and becoming a reality of buried equipment as each section of overhead line is converted to underground on Pawleys Island.
This complex design on paper is taking shape and becoming a reality of buried equipment as each section of overhead line is converted to underground on Pawleys Island.

Construction and Maintenance Planner Donnie Sellers has been supervising the contract crews working on the island. Their job is to bring to fruition what the design team has created. Sellers knew the Santee Cooper design team was determined to maintain the aesthetics of the island. They accomplished this with the use of subsurface enclosures where possible and elected to bore in conduit rather than dig trenches, place conduit and then backfill. The crews working to bore conduit also placed conduit for phone and cable, which helped minimize the disturbance impact on the homeowners.

“It has kept us on our toes, but the goal was to minimize our impact on the residents and maintain the pristine look of this beautiful place,” said Sellers. “When we have completed our work, we will have accomplished what we set out to do.” 

The residents of Pawleys Island have dealt with the winds of change and at the end of the day, sometime in 2018, they will have an underground distribution electrical system that provides improved redundancy, is safer and also promotes their mission, which is to protect and maintain the beauty and history of their island. 

Santee Cooper also has franchise conversion projects currently underway in Conway, North Myrtle Beach, Myrtle Beach, Moncks Corner and Surfside Beach.