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The Texas power grid struggles through heatwave

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

This week Texas came close to having blackouts as another heat wave hit the state. People were able to keep their air conditioning running, but they are worried they could lose power. Mose Buchele from member station KUT has the latest. Hi, Mose.

MOSE BUCHELE, BYLINE: Hi.

SHAPIRO: What's happening in your state?

BUCHELE: Well, this has been a record-breaking summer in terms of heat. Here in Austin, where I am, we've had 77 days of triple digits. And there are just a lot of questions about whether the grid can keep up with demand, right? The state's grid operator, the Electric Reliability Council of Texas, has been asking for voluntary conservation. On Wednesday, we were in one of those conservation requests when the power supply dropped, and ERCOT declared an emergency.

SHAPIRO: Translate that for us. What does that mean?

BUCHELE: Right. So when the power supply gets tight on the grid, operators like ERCOT can use special measures to try to boost reserves, basically. ERCOT can pay big energy users like factories to conserve power to free up supply, or, you know, it can do things like pull more power from neighboring electric grids. You know, in Texas here, we're actually the only state, you might know, with our own power grid. So...

SHAPIRO: Yeah, east-west of Texas.

BUCHELE: I guess that the last resort is rolling - yeah, right. So the - yes. So the last resort in all of those different options are rolling blackouts.

SHAPIRO: And how close to disaster did it get?

BUCHELE: Well, on Wednesday, they said rolling blackouts were possible, but it did not get to that.

SHAPIRO: And you said there have been, like, more than 70 days of triple-digit heat. So why this now?

BUCHELE: So that's a great question. One interesting thing is that this happened later in the evening. Usually, our peak demand has been, like, right after people get home from work. This happened maybe around 7 p.m. It never used to be like this, but these days it's just staying hot later into the evening. A lot of people are still blasting their air conditioning. People wondered if maybe that high demand, along with the sun setting on solar farms, played a role.

SHAPIRO: Is that the reason the state came close to a blackout?

BUCHELE: I have to say, at first the grid operator, ERCOT, stayed pretty quiet about all this. But what seems like happened is that during this, ERCOT started to worry about a key transmission line that brings power - probably brings wind power from the Gulf Coast. They were concerned that it was at risk of overloading, of tripping off.

SHAPIRO: Any idea why?

BUCHELE: Yeah, well, part of this goes back to those high temperatures, which are obviously getting more intense and more frequent with human-caused climate change. Joshua Rhodes is an energy researcher at UT Austin I spoke to. He says that that heat drives up demand, of course, but it also makes it harder to transport electricity.

JOSHUA RHODES: As transmission lines get hotter, we can move less electricity through them. But the more electricity we try to move through them, the more they heat up. So in the summer, transmission lines are getting heated from the outside and the inside.

BUCHELE: Right. So what seems like had happened is the grid operator itself had to cut power to that transmission line to keep it safe.

SHAPIRO: So the state made it through Wednesday all right. But there's still hot days ahead. How worried are grid operators that this could happen in the future?

BUCHELE: I mean, they seem pretty worried. The head of ERCOT wrote to the Department of Energy saying that what happened could keep happening until they improve the transmission capacity. That won't be for a while. And, you know, right now we're in another scorching hot day in Texas, right? I mean, I'm here in Austin. I think the high's around 107.

SHAPIRO: So everybody with air conditioning is turning it on.

BUCHELE: Yes. Demand is high, and that is the other side of the power grid equation - the demand. The fact is that we're just experiencing what feels like - it honestly feels like a never-ending heat wave in Texas. It's driven energy use to record highs over and over again this summer. So this is like - it feels like, you know, it's a new climate reality that the grid just doesn't seem ready to handle.

SHAPIRO: Mose Buchele of member station KUT in Austin. Stay cool there. Thank you.

BUCHELE: I'll try. Thanks, Ari. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Mose Buchele is the Austin-based broadcast reporter for KUT's NPR partnership StateImpact Texas . He has been on staff at KUT 90.5 since 2009, covering local and state issues. Mose has also worked as a blogger on politics and an education reporter at his hometown paper in Western Massachusetts. He holds masters degrees in Latin American Studies and Journalism from UT Austin.
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