Utah is committed to protecting the power grid from outages, fires and sabotage

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It could be a wildfire that shuts down a vital power line and shuts out the lights for thousands.

It could be defective transformers that can take months to replace due to the workload of the suppliers.

Or it could be malicious intent: vandals trying to blow up a substation, or a foreign power hacking into the computers that manage Utah’s power.

In all cases, the power grid faces an increasing threat, and the state is preparing to invest millions of federal dollars to plug the gaps. The US Department of Energy recently announced $48.4 million in “grid resilience” funding, of which $12 million is for Utah.

Every state and tribal nation is working to strengthen their system, and “Utah has been at the forefront” of identifying and addressing the threats, said Rohit Nair, director of engineering and network modernization at PacifiCorp, Rocky’s parent company Mountain Power, which operates in six western states.

Tad Greener, regional officer for economic competitiveness at the Utah Office of Energy Development, said the money is just the first installment of a $35 million grant. The state will receive an additional $5.7 million a year over the next four years.

The Utah legislature established a state Grid Resilience Committee in 2022, and committee chairman Chris Parker identified four key areas of concern at a legislative session earlier this month.

Parker, director of the Utah Division of Public Utilities, said the threats to utilities could be both physical and legal, citing huge compensation payments by California utilities and others following wildfires there.

The four problem areas:

Challenges in powering critical equipment • Parker said the supply chain for transformers and other equipment still hasn’t recovered from slowdowns during the pandemic and rising demand is making it difficult to catch up.

The problem is compounded by aggressive efforts to make the supply chain more American, as encouraged by federal legislation. “One of the increasing challenges is to ensure the domestic supply of critical resources,” said Parker.

Nair said cable coverage has improved but transformers continue to experience long waits.

security ���� In recent years, there have been isolated cases of deliberate attacks on substations, and utilities have invested more in substation strengthening and cybersecurity to protect systems from hackers, including foreign enemies.

Rocky Mountain Power spokesman Jonathan Whitesides said there was indeed an incident at the company last fall in which someone cut through a fence and stole copper wire, but the motive appeared to be theft, not vandalism.

Forest fires and extreme weather • Climate change has made aging lines and pylons in the West more vulnerable, and Westerners expect more proactive management of the grid when fires threaten.

Greener and Nair anticipate wildfire and weather mitigation will be the most common purpose for grants. “They’re pretty easy to do,” Greener said. In most cases, this involves thicker sheathing of wires or fire poles rather than burying wires, which is much more expensive.

controls • The grid needs more sensors and more sophisticated software to monitor threats in real time and shut down sections when necessary to prevent the flow of electricity from starting or spreading fires.

Whitesides said Rocky Mountain shut down a line near the Thompson Ridge fire near Beaver this summer, but no customer shut down power because the company was able to reroute power.

The state already has the money, but all projects must still be approved by the DOE before they can be funded. And the grants require matching money from the recipients. “When they’re in the game, they drive the output,” Greener said.

Measured by Utah’s needs, the federal funds aren’t nearly enough to bolster the entire system, but they can handle the most urgent situations. “Broadly speaking, we spend hundreds of millions of dollars maintaining the system,” Nair said.

While Rocky Mountain manages well over half of Utah’s power grid, it has agreed to pay only half of the federal money for grid stability. The remainder goes to the state’s municipal power grids and rural power cooperatives. Rural systems in particular face enormous threats from fire and weather.

“We didn’t want PacifiCorp to compete with the small utilities,” Greener said.

“Right now, UAMPS is working with its members on potential projects,” said Jessica Stewart, spokeswoman for Utah Municipal Power Systems, which represents more than 35 Utah cities and communities with their own power systems.

The grants will be funded through the 2021 bipartisan infrastructure bill. Senator Mitt Romney was the only Utah congressman to vote in favor of the bill.

Justin Scaccy

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