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Can U.S. power grids handle the surge in energy use as temperatures climb?


How much more heat can America's energy grids handle? With much of the Southwest still coping with an extreme heat wave, people are cranking up the AC at home and at work or their businesses, and that is pushing energy grids in states like Arizona and Texas to their limits. There are repercussions to that. To help us understand what they are, we called Michael Webber. He's an engineer by training and an authority on energy at The University of Texas at Austin. Professor Webber, welcome. Thanks for joining us.

MICHAEL WEBBER: Thank you so much for having me.

MARTIN: How strained are the electrical grids in states like Texas or Arizona at the moment?

WEBBER: Well, what we're finding right now with the high temperatures is that the grid peak demand is setting records, it seems like, every day in Texas and Arizona. There's been population growth and economic growth since last year and now higher temperatures, so people really cranking up their air conditioners. And that's pushing the grid to the limit. The good news is in these hot states, we plan for the summer, so it hasn't been a problem yet. But people are on edge waiting to see if it's going to hold up.

MARTIN: Well, you know, this is a kind of a hard thought, but what would happen if a major energy grid were to give out during one of these stretches of record-breaking heat?

WEBBER: The challenge with the heat wave on the grid is that if the grid goes down during a hot event like this, it goes from uncomfortable to deadly really quickly because you need electricity for cooling. And this is in contrast with the winter. If you have a power outage in the winter, that's also risky because of the cold, but there are many ways to get heat. You can burn wood. You can burn other fuels like oil or gas, you name it. There are a lot of ways to get heat, but there's only one way to get cooling, and that's with electricity.

MARTIN: So are these grids built to endure much more than we're already experiencing? I mean, it just seems like we've been hearing that this could be the new normal. So if temperatures keep climbing, can they handle it?

WEBBER: Sort of yes and no. We design for the summer in these hot states, so that's the good news. Like, we think about peak demand in these hot afternoons in usually August, but now it's happening in June and July. So it's moving earlier and lasting longer, so that's a real challenge. But the triple whammy is that not only is demand higher when it's hot outside, but the power plants themselves, the air conditioners and the transmission lines are all less efficient when it's hot.

So it's, like, a compounded problem. And that means as we continue to have population growth, economic growth and hotter heat waves that last longer, we'll need to build either more capacity on the system or more tools like battery storage or a bigger grid or things that we can turn off, like clothes dryers and pool pumps and water heaters, to reduce demand. So we need more tools in our toolbox, and then we'll be better prepared. And we have to think about that.

MARTIN: I'm going to put you on the spot here. And are there some places that you're more worried about than others? Are there some places that are more vulnerable than others because of how their grids are set up or maybe how their utilities work?

WEBBER: I worry about Texas because we're isolated. There are three grids in America - east, west and Texas. And Texas has set itself apart, which means we can't lean on our neighbors for help if things get dire. So I worry about Texas. And, of course, we had that deadly grid collapse two and a half years ago, so that's on my mind. And then I also worry about the northern states that don't design for the hot summers. They design for the cold winters. Are their power plants going to keep up if there's a heat dome, I don't know, in New England or someplace like that? So there are places with greater vulnerability than others, for sure.

MARTIN: That's Michael Webber. He's a professor at the University of Texas at Austin. Professor Webber, thanks for sharing this expertise with us.

WEBBER: Thank you. Stay cool. 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.

Michel Martin is the weekend host of All Things Considered, where she draws on her deep reporting and interviewing experience to dig in to the week's news. Outside the studio, she has also hosted "Michel Martin: Going There," an ambitious live event series in collaboration with Member Stations.