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Texas; fragile power grid is holding up through increased demand due to extreme heat

JUANA SUMMERS, HOST:

As people in Texas and throughout the South crank up the AC to stay cool, they are pushing the limits of their power supply. So far in Texas, the state's troubled power grid is handling the extra demand. Mose Buchele from member station KUT in Austin joins us now to talk more about how. Hi there.

MOSE BUCHELE, BYLINE: Hi there.

SUMMERS: So how is the state's power grid holding up so far?

BUCHELE: Well, we're using more electricity in Texas right now than we ever have, and that is causing really a lot of anxiety. You might remember our power grid failed a couple of years ago during a big winter storm. So whenever energy demand goes up, people worry. Alison Silverstein is a former state and federal energy regulator. She's now a consultant here in Austin. She says this time, we've been able to meet that high demand, and the reason is renewable power. Wind and especially solar have made up around a third of the energy we've used in this heat wave.

ALISON SILVERSTEIN: Because, as it's perfectly obvious to every Texan, when the sun is shining is when it is hottest.

BUCHELE: So that's important because a lot of conservative state leaders in Texas want to halt the growth of wind and solar here. They say it's not reliable. So they're pushing for more natural gas power plants. But I've got to say, natural gas has been pretty unreliable during this heat.

SUMMERS: How do you mean?

BUCHELE: Well, natural gas plants have suffered more breakdowns than expected. So renewables have had to kind of pick up the slack. Here's Silverstein again.

SILVERSTEIN: When the coal, nuclear and gas plants that we've been looking at aren't showing up with the level of dependability that policymakers assumed, it's pretty hard to support the accusation that wind and solar can't be counted on.

BUCHELE: And that already has some renewable advocates, again, calling for a shift in Texas energy policy.

SUMMERS: I mean, this heat is going to be sticking around the Southern U.S. into next week. So what are you watching?

BUCHELE: Well, I mean, anything could happen. We're still watching the grid. We also already know that people have died in this heat, but those numbers are just starting to come in. It's going to be important to see how many more deaths occur and how those deaths are attributed - sorry - whether that's to heat or something heat-related.

SUMMERS: I have to imagine folks are wondering about the role of climate change here too. What can you tell us?

BUCHELE: Yeah, human-caused climate change has its fingerprints on this heat. For one thing, the duration of this weather. The heat has sat on top of us for weeks now. The jet stream, that's that current of air that circles the globe, has not pushed the heat away, so to speak. Victor Murphy is a climate program manager with the National Weather Service in Fort Worth. He says the heat's been blocked from moving by other weather systems to our east and west.

VICTOR MURPHY: The prevailing wisdom is that, you know, thanks to climate change, the jet stream shifts further north and weakens. You're more apt to get these blocking type of weather patterns that persist for periods of time.

BUCHELE: Right. And then there's also the humidity. In much of Texas, our heat waves come with drought, but warmer atmosphere can hold more water. So this time we've had a near tropical-like humidity and on top of this extreme heat in parts of the state where that doesn't usually happen. That makes it so it doesn't really cool off at night, and it drives up that heat index - that feels-like temperature. It makes things even more unbearable.

SUMMERS: Mose Buchele with KUT in Austin. Thanks so much and do your best to stay cool.

BUCHELE: Thank you. I will. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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.