March 11, 2021

Wyden, Merkley Introduce Bill to Ensure More Disaster Resilient Power Grid

Wyden made the case for his new bill during a Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee hearing today

Washington, D.C. – U.S. Sens. Ron Wyden, D-Ore., and Jeff Merkley, D-Ore., today introduced legislation that would provide incentives to utility companies to do more to protect against power outages and wildfires as the climate emergency hits communities in Oregon and nationwide with extreme weather events. 

Wyden and Merkley's Disaster Safe Power Grid Act would ensure that power companies do their part to reduce the risks of power blackouts and wildland fires through power system upgrades, fire and disaster safety equipment installation, and proper vegetation management. The legislation follows recent instances of how snow and ice storms in Oregon and around the country strained utility infrastructure and caused widespread blackouts, as well as the continued risk of wildfires igniting aging power line infrastructure.

“In the last year alone, families in Oregon and around the country have felt the severe impacts of the climate emergency in their communities – some losing power for days because of the recent winter storms, and others losing their homes because of wildfires sparked by aging power lines,” Wyden said. “The climate fight must include a significant investment in making our power grid more resilient to extreme weather events and that means partnering with utility companies to get the job done. This is a public safety issue, and as another dry summer is imminent, there's not time to wait.”

“No American should have to worry about their life being at risk because they’ve been stranded for days or weeks on end without electricity, or because their community is on the verge of being enveloped in a catastrophic wildfire started by a power line spark,” said Merkley. “Especially as summer droughts and intense winter storms become more common, now is the time to invest in our power grids and reduce the chance of outages or sparks. Let’s pass the Disaster Safe Power Grid Act and make all of our communities safer.”

Through a matching grant program, the Disaster Safe Power Grid Act would incentivize utilities to do more to reduce natural disaster and wildfire risks while also bearing a substantial responsibility for the costs involved. 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 Disaster Safe Power Grid Act: 

  • Establishes a $10 billion-per-year matching grant program for power companies through the Department of Energy to reduce the risk of disaster-caused outages or power lines causing wildfires.  
  • Gives special priority to smaller, rural electric companies. 
  • Promotes proven methods for hardening the power grid and reducing wildfire risks, including undergrounding of powerlines, installation of microgrids, and strengthening utility poles. 
  • Provides for hardening of overhead power lines and clearing of brush and other hazardous vegetation where undergrounding of power lines is not a favorable option.  
  • Requires power companies to have “skin in the game” by making the program a 1-to-1 matching grant, with an exception for smaller utilities where the matching requirement is one third of the grant. 
  • Delivers accountability on the part of utilities and the Department of Energy by generating a report every two years on efforts conducted under the grant program. 

A summary of the Disaster Safe Power Grid Act can be found here

Legislative text can be found here.

Portland General Electric President and CEO Maria Pope: “Senators Wyden and Merkley are steadfast advocates for legislation and federal funding to help protect Oregon’s critical infrastructure from the devastating impacts of natural disasters like the ice and snowstorms we just experienced and last fall’s wildfires. This legislation will help fortify Oregon’s electric system, making it safer and more secure, while limiting impacts on customer prices.”

Edison Electric Institute President Tom Kuhn: “EEI thanks Senators Wyden for his leadership in introducing the Disaster Safe Power Grid Act of 2021. This bill will help support and accelerate EEI member company projects to make the energy grid more resilient and to mitigate the risk of damage to power lines caused by natural disasters and, especially, wildfires. Electric companies across the country are committed to working with our government partners and other stakeholders to enhance grid resiliency, while delivering the safe, reliable, affordable, and clean energy our customers need.” 

Oregon Rural Electric Cooperative Association Executive Director Ted Case: “Oregon’s electric cooperatives support the Disaster Safe Power Grid Act and appreciate Senator Wyden’s and Senator Merkley’s leadership and innovative approach to disaster mitigation, particularly for small, rural utilities. This legislation includes targeted assistance that will help us to continue to provide affordable, reliable and safe electricity to over 500,000 Oregonians.”

Sustainable Northwest Director of Government Affairs & Program Strategy Dylan Kruse: "In recent years, the West has seen increased natural disasters damage electric utility transmission and distribution infrastructure, and resulting wildfires from poorly maintained equipment have caused further threats and damages. This legislation plays an important role to ensure that safe and reliable power is provided to communities during and after natural disasters, and future crises are mitigated. Utilities must live up to their legal requirements to maintain their infrastructure, but this bill provides welcome resources to expedite and prioritize risk reduction, enhance resilience, and prevent cost increases for ratepayers."

Marion County Commissioner Kevin Cameron: “After experiencing a traumatic evacuation during the Beachie Creek wildfire, and losing electricity for days from this recent ice storm, it is evident Oregon is vulnerable to many different natural disasters. And because of my experience, I understand the need to strengthen the utility Infrastructure against all disasters.  The improvements resulting from Senators Wyden and Merkley’s bill will reduce disasters in the future, but improve everyday reliability for our citizens who live, work and protect the environment in potential wildfire areas and all of Oregon.”

Lane County Commissioner Heather Buch: “In just the last two years Lane County has seen passenger trains stopped in their tracks by massive snow and ice storms, people flee their homes from floods, and an entire community reduced to ashes by megafires. It is imperative we commit to building it back better and more resilient. I applaud Senators Wyden and Merkley for drafting the Disaster Safe Power Grid Act, as it could well provide the path towards meeting this important goal. Moreover, the resultant programs will better protect rural communities from the ever increasing dangers of natural disasters through a number of preventative measures that would otherwise be difficult to implement.”

Linn County Commissioner Roger Nyquist: “This legislation is a smart strategic investment for the future safety of our residents as well as the economic vitality of our community.”