Providing reliable and affordable electricity is the core job of every electric utility. Yet, today, in the United States, power outages are becoming more frequent and lasting longer.
For a variety of reasons, electric grids in rural communities are often the most vulnerable to storms, wildfires, invasive pests, and other hazards. These outages can harm people, businesses, schools, and public services and even dissuade prospective employers from locating in a region known for poor grid reliability.
Due to their limited financial capacity, improving electric reliability is often more difficult for small rural co-ops and publicly owned utilities. Yet, along with the urgent need to reduce outages, they are tasked with managing new and changing loads associated with electrification and distributed energy resources.
Funding the needed investments in rural grid reliability and modernization will take many years, but Section 40101 of the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law offers a promising start—especially the 40101(d) grant program, which requires only a 33% match from utilities with gross sales of less than 4 million MWh per year (which equates to a 25% cost share).
A formula program, 40101(d) will disburse $2.3 billion to states and tribal governments over five years for grantmaking to utilities who seek to strengthen and modernize their grids. With a few exceptions, states and tribes began their first grant cycles in 2023; the first award announcements have already begun in some states, with annual grant cycles to follow.
The amount of annual funding available is small given the infrastructure needs electric utilities face. But for rural utilities with little or no experience seeking grants, 40101(d) is an excellent place to start. It’s also a rare opportunity to access funds for core priorities—like wildfire mitigation, expanding SCADA capabilities, upgrading older substations, and expanding customer weatherization programs.
Beneficial Electrification League (BEL) has assisted over a dozen rural utilities with their 40101(d) grant requests and looks forward to assisting more in future years thanks in part to sponsorships and donations to our programs. Here are some examples of projects for which rural utilities that BEL has supported are seeking 40101(d) funding:
- A cooperative seeks ~$3 million to upgrade its SCADA capabilities, expand its SCADA system from 8 to 26 of its substations and metering points, and harden a substation with poor reliability. These upgrades will provide real-time visibility of their entire distribution grid, allow remote troubleshooting of issues, prevent outages, and allow the co-op to take full advantage of a customer fiber-optic network it deployed in 2019.
- Like many other rural utilities, another small cooperative serves many customers with one radial transmission line. With electricity coming from a single line, the two substations and all customers on this circuit would lose power during an outage—even one planned for maintenance. The cooperative is seeking $1.06 million to build a new transmission line, upgrade distribution lines to the two substations and deploy switching devices and software that will allow rapid redirection of energy when needed and more streamlined detection of outages on these circuits.
- As a result of budding relationships from supporting 40101(d) applications, BEL helped form a consortium of six co-ops to work together on two daunting problems: the proliferation of hazard trees that are being killed by the emerald ash borer and lantern fly; and hardening grids against worsening extreme weather events associated with climate change. The consortium’s Resilience to Intense Storms and Invasive Species-Triggered Grid Disruptions (or RESIST Grid Disruptions) effort will integrate advanced grid management tools with outage detection and prevention technologies to improve reliability in heavily forested rural service territories.
These kinds of upgrades will be required not only to improve reliability but also to prepare rural utilities for electrification of HVAC and other loads now supplied by onsite fossil fuels—as well as distributed generation and storage. While glistening solar panels, sleek battery packs, and advanced EV charging systems are the flashy unicorns of electrification, the prosaic workhorses of distribution grids—poles and wires, transformers and substations, fire mitigation and SCADA systems—must also be built up to accomplish the energy transition.