Daily Inter Lake: Federal dollars secured to improve state’s power grid

by Kate Heston

More than $14 million in federal funds is flowing into Montana to improve the state’s energy grid, officials with the U.S. Department of Energy said earlier this month.

The influx of dollars, praised in a press release by Sen. Jon Tester’s office, comes from the federal Grid Resilience State and Tribal Formula Grants program, which is part of the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act.

“Montana small businesses and families from Kalispell to Whitefish need an energy grid they can rely on, which is why I’m proud to have secured this funding in my bipartisan infrastructure law to modernize Montana’s electrical grid and help make sure we can keep the power on all across our state,” Tester said in a statement.

The grant funding will be used to prevent wildfire ignition and expand the workforce in Montana needed to operate and maintain resilience measures, Tester’s office said.

The money likely will be used to improve some portions of the state’s power grid in part through vegetation management around overhead energy lines, according to Ashley Keltner, a system engineer at Flathead Electric Co-op. While the cooperative is not receiving any money at this time, Keltner said it is important for utilities to stay up to date with work to strengthen the system.

“Over the past few years we’ve seen some bigger wind storms,” Keltner said. “I think this is constant, trying to keep up.”

The money will allow the state to work with awardees on specific projects like improved infrastructure, equipment and software or for organizational changes to mitigate the hazards wildfires, winter storms and other intense events pose to the electrical grid.

While the money is a good start, the question remains as to how much a full restoration and strengthening project would cost, according to Patrick Barkey, director of the Bureau of Business and Economic Research at the University of Montana.

“When it’s public sector spending, it’s political,” Barkey said, wondering if the money is enough to make a dent in the infrastructure needs of the state’s power grid.

Barkey spent the last few months traveling Montana, speaking on how the growth in electricity generation and transmission infrastructure is failing to keep pace with the increasing demand. His last stop was in Kalispell at the beginning of August.

In a state as spread out and sparsely populated as Montana, energy lines are a piece of infrastructure that needs to be maintained, Barkey said.

“The evidence is clear in other states, most recently Hawaii… that if you don’t stay on top of this it can be catastrophic,” Barkey said, referencing the recent wildfires in Maui.

In early August, a series of wildfires broke out on Maui after hurricane grade winds overtook the island. In the historic town of Lahaina, experts attributed the start of the fire to a tree falling on a powerline. Over 100 people died in the disaster.

The growing threat is coming from literally what grows, Barkey said, hoping that grant spenders make an effort to clear the lines from any overgrowth or tree interference.

The money from the Grid Resilience State and Tribal Formula Grants program allows states and Tribes to make sub-awards to eligible entities to harden their systems.

“By making changes to harden our grid and bring outdated infrastructure into the 21st century, these funds will help keep the lights on when Montanans need them the most,” Tester’s office said in a press release.