A Senate infrastructure bill helps small rural utilities harden their grid— and keep consumers and communities safe

By Ted Case

Senator Ron Wyden’s legislation could help Consumers Power Inc., which has plans to underground a large number of power poles in high-risk wildfire areas in Santiam Canyon. Photo by Ted Case

In August, the U.S. Senate passed a massive infrastructure bill containing enormous investment in roads and bridges, as well as for airports, public transit, and broadband.

For Oregon’s electric cooperatives, a new matching grant program for mitigating the risk of disasters to the electric grid could be one of the most important parts of the 2,700-page bill.

“Many utility companies are already working to improve the resiliency of their power grid, but the sheer costs of these investments must not come at the expense of rural utility customers,” said U.S. Senator Ron Wyden, author of the proposal. “Congress must do all that it can to stop the catastrophic wildfires decimating the West, and that means improving rural infrastructure. By partnering with utilities around the country, we can increase wildfire mitigation efforts at a modest cost—a fire-prevention investment that will pay dividends by saving lives, homes, and businesses.”

At a recent press conference with Senator Wyden in Bend, Central Electric Cooperative CEO Dave Markham lauded Oregon’s senior senator for including provisions of his Disaster Safe Power Grid Act of 2021 in the infrastructure bill.

Through a matching grant program, the legislation will incentivize utilities to do more to reduce natural disaster and wildfire risks while also bearing a substantial responsibility for the costs.

By partnering with utilities around the country, the federal government can increase disaster and wildfire mitigation efforts at a modest cost to the public—a risk-prevention and safety enhancement investment that will pay dividends.

“The wildfires Oregonians have experienced over the last year are a sober reminder and stress the need and urgency for this critically important legislation,” Markham said at the press conference.

Markham explained Oregon electric cooperatives are doing what they can to harden their systems, implement aggressive vegetation management plans, and plan for the unexpected to keep their members and communities safe from wildfires.

Last fall, Consumers Power Inc. CEO Roman Gillen toured the devastation from the Beachie Creek Fire in Santiam Canyon with Senator Wyden. During the tour, Gillen outlined CPI’s ambitious plans to remove overhead lines in high-risk areas and take other measures to harden its infrastructure.

Central Electric Cooperative CEO Dave Markham, left, appeared at a press conference in Bend with Senator Wyden, far right, to voice support for the Disaster Safe Grid Power Act that was included in the Senate infrastructure bill. Photo by Brent Ten Pas

“It is clear that Senator Wyden and our congressional delegation understand the incredible resources that are needed to protect our consumers and communities from wildfires,” Gillen said. “We are committed to making our system as safe and reliable as possible, but it comes at an enormous cost.”

Similar to Consumers Power, Markham’s Central Electric Cooperative serves a large territory in heavily forested, high fire risk areas.

“We have thousands of miles of overhead power lines that could be upgraded with fire-resistant components to mitigate against wildfire threats,” Markham said.

The costs of burying power lines can be exorbitant, however, creating a problem for smaller rural utilities. Sen. Wyden recognized this challenge and included a small utility set aside for matching funds to be made available specifically for smaller rural cooperatives.

Markham pointed out mitigation includes far more than just undergrounding lines, noting CEC is implementing distribution fault-anticipation technology in high fire-risk areas.

“The technology provides real-time situational awareness to keep power lines from contributing to the ignition of wildfires,” he said.

Other potential mitigation activities include installing weather stations in high fire-risk areas, and accelerating and enhancing ongoing vegetation management efforts.

While there is hope Oregon has dodged a bullet in 2021 compared to the 2020 wildfire season that saw more than 1 million acres burned and the deaths of nine Oregonians, there is still a sense of urgency among electric cooperatives to take whatever steps are necessary to harden their systems.

“We’re going nonstop with a variety of measures,” Gillen said, adding that the lush rainforests of Western Oregon have been replaced by dry, brittle forests that are ripe for wildfires. “I’m proud of our effort and I’m thankful to Senator Wyden for this innovative partnership with the federal government.”