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Extreme heat is putting power grids at risk of energy shortfalls


NELLY: (Singing) Oh, it's getting hot in here - so hot - so take off all your clothes.


Temperatures are hitting the 90s well into the upper Mississippi Valley, and it's even warmer in the central and southern plains. And despite the advice you just heard from Nelly in the song there, Americans are opting for AC - millions of homes with air conditioners on full blast, pulling electricity from overburdened power grids. According to the North American Electric Reliability Corporation, two-thirds of the U.S. are at risk of energy shortfalls due to extreme heat. Daniel Cohan is a professor of environmental engineering at Rice University, and he joins us now. Welcome to the program.

DANIEL COHAN: Thank you, Ayesha. Great to be with you.

RASCOE: So extreme heat isn't new, but obviously with climate change, it's becoming increasingly common. And our power grids - they're not really equipped for this, right? They're still very old-fashioned.

COHAN: Right. They're struggling to keep up with heat waves that keep getting hotter as the climate warms. And right now, we're seeing some of the hottest temperatures that we've ever experienced in June. Our biggest sources of supply historically haven't been growing. We haven't been building new nuclear plants or new hydroelectric dams in this country. We've been closing a lot of our coal plants.

And that's coming at a time when demand is starting to grow again. We're having these heat waves drive up air conditioning use in the summer, and we're starting to see more and more electric cars and data centers on the grid that are driving demand up after a couple of decades when demand growth was very slow.

RASCOE: Is the solution to simply increase renewable energy production around the country - say, by building more wind farms, solar farms?

COHAN: It's part of the solution. The Department of Energy expects that most of the growth that we're going to see in electricity this year is going to come from solar and wind. In fact, there are enormous numbers of wind and solar farms waiting to be built - 10 times as many solar projects wanting to be built as what we have on the grid. But our power grid isn't really set up to have enough transmission lines connecting to the sunniest and windiest parts of the country. So we're seeing the grid experience strains in getting enough power from where it's really windy and sunny to the cities and factories that need it most.

RASCOE: That is an issue.

COHAN: Right. Our grid got built to bring power from several hundred really big power plants - nuclear plants, coal plants, gas plants - and bring it out from there to cities. What we need with wind and solar is a lot more lines with enough capacity - the really high voltages that let you move a lot of power around.

RASCOE: Getting all these lines built, you have to, like, cross state lines, which is always a big issue because states will disagree. And then also people don't necessarily want power lines built all over the place.

COHAN: Right. There's a big problem with the not-in-my-backyard attitudes, which...


COHAN: ...Has made it very hard to build new infrastructure.

RASCOE: So are there any places in the U.S. that have done a good job of modernizing the grid?

COHAN: Here in Texas, what our leaders got right was building out billions of dollars' worth of power lines within the state. We've better linked within our state, but we're not linked elsewhere. I don't think there's any part of the country that's really doing an A-plus job on infrastructure. You see energy experts come visit from Europe or Japan or elsewhere, and they're appalled at how insufficient our grid is.

What you do see in terms of where there's less risk this summer, who might get by a little bit more easily, is that much of the Southeast and mid-Atlantic states - they operate their grids with a bigger buffer. They have more surplus capacity online, which gives them a little bit more confidence of not having any shortages this summer. But it comes with an extra cost because you can't store up power most of the time. And so the bigger and bigger buffers that you build, the more that power can cost.

RASCOE: Daniel Cohan of Rice University, thank you so much for joining us.

COHAN: Thank you, Ayesha. Pleasure to be with you. 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.

Ayesha Rascoe is a White House correspondent for NPR. She is currently covering her third presidential administration. Rascoe's White House coverage has included a number of high profile foreign trips, including President Trump's 2019 summit with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un in Hanoi, Vietnam, and President Obama's final NATO summit in Warsaw, Poland in 2016. As a part of the White House team, she's also a regular on the NPR Politics Podcast.