Utah is currently embroiled in a debate over whether the coal-burning Intermountain Power Plant should be kept open past its planned retirement next year. I’ll steer clear of the many issues raised by SB161 — which was signed last month by Gov. Spencer Cox and would allow the state to take over the plant. But I do want to highlight one argument the bill’s proponents have made: It’s needed to boost the reliability of the electric grid.

The fact of the matter is that mounting reliability issues are less about how we generate our electricity and more about how we move that power from Point A to Point B. And the sad truth is, our aging electric grid is badly in need of modernization.

This is not just about meeting current needs; it’s about ensuring reliability, resilience and sustainability for generations to come. The Western Interconnection, of which Utah is a part, faces major reliability challenges, and expanding electric transmission is a crucial solution to addressing them.

Spanning from the Rocky Mountains to the Pacific Coast, the Western Interconnection is a sprawling network of power generation and transmission systems. It’s served our region well for decades, but is increasingly showing signs of strain — especially from the growing frequency and severity of power outages. While Rocky Mountain Power has been proactive in planning transmission for the local footprint, much more can be done to integrate within the region.

Unless we expand transmission capacity by building more transmission lines, power losses from extreme weather events will continue to leave us in the dark — as happened last month when a winter storm knocked out power to thousands in the Salt Lake City region. These have become an all-too-common feature of life in our state that not only inconveniences consumers and businesses but also poses serious public safety risks.

Inadequate transmission also leaves Utahns at risk of losing out on economic growth, which depends on access to reliable electricity. New economic engines such as data centers, artificial intelligence and manufacturing facilities spawned by recent federal investments are heavy consumers of electricity.

The demands for new power will only continue to grow. The International Energy Agency recently estimated that power demand from data centers and AI will double by 2026 – to the level of electricity consumed by Japan each year. Without a reliable electric grid to support the electricity required by these new projects, Utahns are at risk of losing out on the jobs that would be created by our changing economy.

A lack of transmission also deprives Utahns of the benefits of affordable power. Cheap clean energy is booming across the nation but can’t access the electric grid to provide that energy to customers without sufficient transmission capacity, keeping electric bills unnecessarily high.

We simply cannot keep operating under the current status quo. Our current incremental approach to planning transmission is the most expensive way to provide energy to households and businesses. In order to keep the lights on and attract economic growth, states and regions must plan transmission in a more forward-looking way that takes into account projected electricity supply and demand.

That means reforming the rules that dictate how transmission projects are planned and paid for, which are some of the biggest barriers to efficient and timely development of transmission lines. The Federal Energy Regulatory Commission is currently considering a regional planning and cost allocation rule that would go a long way toward improving things.

It is imperative that this final rule from FERC requires planners to take a long-term look at changing energy demand and future energy resources, as well as specify a comprehensive set of transmission benefits and a process for assigning costs in line with those benefits.

Fixing these three issues would mean a huge shift away from the status quo, and help strengthen our electric grid, unlock economic growth, and lower consumers’ electric bills.

Steve Handy is a former state legislator and the Utah director for The Western Way, an organization focused on market-competitive solutions to environmental and conservation challenges.