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Hurricane Beryl is another example of why the power grid needs to be more resilient


Hurricane Beryl turned the lights out on Houston right in the middle of a heat wave, and neither the summer nor the hurricane season will end any time soon, so how prepared is the power grid in Texas - and throughout the U.S. - to withstand our changing climate? Michael Webber is a professor of mechanical engineering at the University of Texas at Austin and focuses on energy issues. Professor, almost 3 million people lost power after Hurricane Beryl came through this week - aging infrastructure, strength of the storm or too much of both?

MICHAEL WEBBER: I mean, it's everything, right? It's a warming world with weirder weather, but also more demands on the grid than we used to have, from air conditioning and electric cars and data centers and everything, so it's all hitting the grid at the same time in sort of a triple whammy.

MARTÍNEZ: Yeah, and I remember when Texas in - what? - February 2021, when it was cold - right? - three severe winter storms caused the worst infrastructure failure in state history, so it just - it's a reality, I think, that we've known about, but how come it seems like we're unprepared, infrastructure-wise, to handle this stuff?

WEBBER: I think the big difference we have to deal with now is that the weather is actually more intense. We built our grid over decades in a century when the weather was milder, and as the weather gets colder and hotter and windier and wetter and drier all at the same time, that puts more strains on the grid, and these storms have different failure modes. The storm of February 2021, it was really cold, so that froze up the natural gas system and froze up coal piles and froze up the power plants. This time, it was the wind from the hurricanes and other things that knocked down the wires and poles, so there are different places the grid can fail, and extreme weather triggers all of it. And then when you have an outage and it's really hot outside, it goes from uncomfortable to deadly really quickly, so that's a compounding factor for the misery and the suffering right now.

MARTÍNEZ: Now, we're focusing on Texas right now, but how are power grids across the country? Is this just a Texas thing right now, or is it vulnerable everywhere?

WEBBER: It's really everywhere. So Texas is really prominent because it's the energy capital of the world, and when the energy capital of the world struggles with its energy, it seems to be really noteworthy. Also, Texas is the line of attack, it seems like, of these windstorms and hurricanes, so we get all of the weather, but we also have our own grid. There's three grids in America - East, West and Texas - and our isolated grid makes it harder for us to respond sometimes if the power goes out in a bulk way. But there's also California, which has the heat and the worry about the wildfires, and there's tornadoes and heat wave in New York, where I'm seated right now. There was actually a demand response event two days ago, where they asked people to conserve power 'cause it was so hot in New York. So it seems like everyone has to confront this warming world, but also all the new demands for electricity, for our phones and laptops and everything else.

MARTÍNEZ: Yeah. I'm in Los Angeles, Professor. It's been, like, 100 degrees almost every single day for a couple of weeks now. Every day, I think I'm checking on the grid to make sure that it's holding up. So what needs to be done at the local level to make grids more resilient?

WEBBER: There are a variety of things you can do, and your California example is interesting 'cause you have that heat wave. That heat wave probably is accompanied by droughts. You might be getting less...


WEBBER: ...Hydroelectric power out of the dams in California at the same time. That's another strain. At the local level, start with efficiency. California is quite good at that. Texas, we need to catch up, and that reduces the demand in your home, if you have a more efficient air conditioner or better insulation in your homes. There are things we can do like solar panels on our roof or batteries, and not all of us can afford that, so maybe there's room for government policy support there. That will help prop up the grid, if we have more supply from the solar panels or backup from the batteries. And we just need to expand the grid, frankly, and then expand the wires and poles - like, have more wires and poles, more transmission and distribution - and I would even suggest hardening the system, getting stronger poles instead of the old wooden ones or putting them underground in places where you can, to avoid sparking a wildfire or to avoid having them fall over when it's windy. So there are a variety of things we can do in our homes or at the local community level.

MARTÍNEZ: That's Michael Webber at the University of Texas at Austin. Professor Webber, thank you very much for explaining this to us.

WEBBER: Yeah, and thanks for covering the story. It's an important topic.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) 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.

A Martínez is one of the hosts of Morning Edition and Up First. He came to NPR in 2021 and is based out of NPR West.