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U.S. to spend $100 million to strengthen and protect Mountain West power lines

Power lines in a rural area with wildfire smoke in the background. In the middle of the image is a green directional sign with “Boulder,” “Eldorado Pass” and “Marshall” on it.
Flickr Creative Commons
Smoke from the Fourmile Canyon Fire billows behind power lines in a rural area near Boulder, Colo., in 2010.

Studies show the nation’s aging power grid isn’t ready to handle the energy shift from fossil fuels to renewables. The federal government hopes a historic investment will fix that for states and tribes in the Mountain West and beyond.

The U.S. Department of Energy is spending $3.5 billion to upgrade the electric grid – the biggest-ever investment in energy infrastructure.

The money, from the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law, will be used on efforts like expanding capacity for wind and solar power and building hundreds of microgrids that help people keep the lights on during power outages. Weather-related power outages increased by 78% between 2011 and 2021 compared to the previous decade, according to Climate Central, a nonprofit research group.

The new funding will also go toward hardening power lines against extreme weather and wildfires. One of those projects is a $100 million investment in high-risk fire areas across more than a dozen states, including Colorado, Idaho, New Mexico, Utah and Wyoming.

In all, 58 projects across 44 states will bring 35 gigawatts of renewable energy online within a decade. Nationwide, that will increase the country’s grid capacity by 10%, according to the Energy Department.

“This provides an enormous opportunity for us to address transmission congestion, outdated transmission leading to wildfires,” said Margaret Tallmadge, director of development at Navajo Power, a Native-owned developer of renewable energy projects on tribal lands. “A huge opportunity to support renewable energy development in Indian country.”

Tallmadge said it’s also a chance for tribes to play major roles in transmitting power to load centers, and receive the revenue and economic benefits of their projects.

This story was produced by the Mountain West News Bureau, a collaboration between Wyoming Public Media, Nevada Public Radio, Boise State Public Radio in Idaho, KUNR in Nevada, KUNC in Colorado and KANW in New Mexico, with support from affiliate stations across the region. Funding for the Mountain West News Bureau is provided in part by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.

The photo included in this story is licensed under Flickr Creative Commons.

Kaleb is an award-winning journalist and KUNR’s Mountain West News Bureau reporter. His reporting covers issues related to the environment, wildlife and water in Nevada and the region.