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Capital & Main
Capital & Main
Robert Davis

Federal Infrastructure Dollars to Upgrade Fragile Indian Country Power Grid

Photo: Carmen Martínez Torrón/Getty Images.

Ken Quiner describes electrical blackouts as a “triage moment” for the Washoe Tribe of Nevada and California. 

Tribal elders, local doctors, people who are bedridden or in hospice care and other vulnerable members of the community all need a constant and consistent supply of electricity, he said. That puts a lot of strain on the tribe’s Emergency Operations Center to find ways to patch the power grid as fast as possible, especially during heavy snowstorms like the ones that rolled through last winter and knocked out the power to half of the community.

In those situations, the tribe uses 80-watt generators to open so-called power shelters at local community centers complete with cots, blankets and charging stations for residents who need to stay overnight. If a tribal member can’t leave their home, a power generator will be attached to that individual’s home. But Quiner, the tribe’s emergency manager, knows that doing both can be difficult with only eight generators for a community of more than 300 households, many of which are served by outdated electrical equipment. 

“It’s triage,” Quiner said. “The first question is ‘who needs [power] the most?’ and then we move on to the shelters.”

Managing the tribe’s fragile power grid has also become increasingly challenging as states across the western U.S. grapple with drought, extreme heat and wildfires. For instance, Quiner said some overgrown brush has covered some power lines. That not only increases their risk of breaking during a high wind event but also increases the likelihood of downed power lines sparking a wildfire. 

In August, the Washoe Tribe was awarded a $1.3 million grant from the Department of Energy’s Grid Resilience State and Tribal Formula Grants program to begin hardening its electric grid against these events. The grant was awarded as a part of the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law that President Joe Biden signed into law in November 2021. The bill committed $3.46 billion toward grid resiliency projects nationwide, plus $3.9 billion for fiscal years 2024 and 2025. 

The grant program is designed to support programs that “modernize America’s power grid against wildfires, extreme weather and other natural disasters,” according to the Department of Energy’s website. So far, the program has awarded more than $748 million in grants to 48 states and 49 tribes. 

“A modern, reliable grid is a critical feature to expanding access and use of clean power sources,” U.S. Secretary of Energy Jennifer M. Granholm said in a press release. 

The grant the Washoe Tribe received is being paid out over five years, Quiner said, and the tribe has already received its first two years of funding. While these funds will help the tribe begin certain projects like upgrading old power lines and hardware, the payment amounts for the next three years are still to be determined, Quiner said. This has made it hard for the Washoe Tribe to move beyond initial idea-generating discussions into more strategic and operational conversations, he added. 

“The biggest challenge we face is outages, but that doesn’t mean the other threats don’t exist,” Quiner said. “They’re all tied together.”

The efforts to modernize the Washoe Tribe’s energy sources come at a time when drought conditions are testing Nevada’s energy grid like never before. 

ABC News reported in October 2022 that water levels in Lake Mead reached a historic low at just 1,046 feet. One result was that some rural Nevada communities, such as Lincoln County, which is about 150 miles north of Las Vegas and home to around 4,500 people, saw increased power costs, according to the Nevada Independent. Those who buy this power include small rural electric nonprofit utilities, tribal nations and local government agencies. 

As of October 2023, the U.S. Drought Monitor found that drought conditions in Nevada had almost completely subsided. But issues stemming from high heat have continued to test the resilience of the state’s power grid. In July, Southern Nevada recorded a streak of high temperatures north of 105 degrees, placing near-record demand on power grids.

Nevada policymakers responded by approving a $333 million project to develop a natural gas plant north of Las Vegas to help the state transition away from coal-powered electricity. The plant is expected to be operational by July 2024, CNBC reported in March.

Nevada consumers use approximately one-quarter of the natural gas that enters the state via pipelines while the remaining 75% continues on to other states like California and Oregon, according to the Energy Information Administration. 

Quiner said the $1.3 million grant from the Department of Energy could also help the Washoe Tribe deepen its relationship with Nevada Energy and Liberty Utilities, the local utility companies that provide power to the community. 

When the power goes out, Quiner said the utility companies usually have it up and running promptly. But the instances in which the power remains out for multiple days are challenging given the current circumstances, he added. The tribe is considering upgrading its underground power equipment, but the projects cost roughly $1 million per mile, Quiner said. Even though both utility companies have agreed to match the grant funding, the money doesn’t go far enough for a project of the size the tribe needs, Quiner said. 

The grant could also help the tribe create a new workforce development partnership with the utility companies to increase tribal representation within their respective ranks and help tribal members secure high-paying lineman jobs, Quiner said. The average lineman in Nevada earns about $93,000 per year, according to Census data shows that the per capita income in Washoe County, Nevada, is about $40,000. 

“This grant is a blessing, but there’s a lot of work that needs to go into it,” Quiner said.

Copyright 2023 Capital & Main

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