It's Texas' hottest summer ever. Can the electric grid handle people turning up AC? A heatwave in Texas has stressed the state's isolated electricity grid. A new podcast from KUT explores the future of the power grid and whether it'll hold up as residents use more air conditioning.

It's Texas' hottest summer ever. Can the electric grid handle people turning up AC?

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Much of Texas is in the middle of its hottest summer ever. The heat has driven record-breaking electricity use as people blast their air conditioning, and that is straining the state's troubled electric grid. With August still ahead, many are wondering whether the system will hold up. Joining us to talk about it is Mose Buchele. He is an energy and environment reporter from member station KUT in Austin. Welcome.


SUMMERS: So what has the heat been like in Austin this year for you?

BUCHELE: It's been relentless. You know, it started in the spring, and we started getting triple digits in May with very little rain. And it's just basically stayed that way. Here in central Texas, we're now at around 45 days of triple-digit heat this year. It stays warm through the night, you know, so you wake up and it's hot out first thing in the morning. This is a level of heat that the state's grid operator said it did not expect going into this summer. But summers are getting hotter here with climate change, so it's also kind of becoming more of the norm.

SUMMERS: Yeah, you know, it's hard not to think of the big winter blackout in Texas last year. Those memories were still quite fresh. Can you explain what the challenges are for the power grid in Texas now given this extreme summer heat?

BUCHELE: You know, in some ways, it's not much different. In both cases, we have extreme weather putting massive energy demand on the state grid. Last year, it was the cold, and now it's the heat. And you got to remember that Texas operates its own power grid, right? We have very few connections outside the state. So when demand goes up here, we can't pull power from many other places. And that means that three times already this year, the state's grid operator has had to call for conservation within Texas to avoid going into emergency operations. That means, you know, things like asking people to turn the temperature up on their AC, stop running big appliances, stuff like that.

SUMMERS: Mose, I can't imagine that goes over too well.

BUCHELE: No, it really doesn't. You know, there's still a lot of anger here over that big blackout in the winter of 2021. People feel that the system failed them, and they also are seeing their bills are a lot higher, like we're seeing across the country. They're higher here because of natural gas prices, of course, but also because of the costs from that last big blackout. So, you know, you see a lot of pushback on social media and elsewhere when people are asked to conserve. Although I should say that the group that operates the state grid, the Electric Reliability Council of Texas, it says that these conservation calls are still helping.

SUMMERS: And all of this is happening as state regulators are trying to overhaul the electric grid, right?

BUCHELE: Yeah, yeah. These reforms, they include weatherizing power plants, also paying them to run more often. So these are costly changes. But state regulators say that they've helped keep the lights on. But then again, you know, people are nervous, especially when those assurances are followed up by conservation requests.

SUMMERS: Yeah. So I have to ask, are these worries founded? Is there much likelihood of another blackout?

BUCHELE: OK, so, you know, the conditions for rolling blackouts are high energy demand on one side and inadequate supply on the other side. So we've had high demand now, and we've had it for months. If we get a situation where supply suddenly cuts off - maybe power plants break down, maybe there's low wind power production - that's when blackouts could start happening. Now, it's worth noting that so far this year, Texas renewable energy - its wind and solar resources - have played a huge role in stopping that from happening.

SUMMERS: All right. Mose Buchele hosts the podcast "The Disconnect: Power, Politics And The Texas Blackout." Thank you so much for your reporting.

BUCHELE: Yeah, thank you.

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