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Advocates Call For Updated Power Infrastructure In Light Of Weather-Related Outages


The Texas blackout is another reminder that more frequent climate-driven extreme weather puts stress on the country's electric grid. There were also outages aimed at preventing wildfires in California last summer. And on top of these problems, there is the push to electrify cars and homes to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. NPR's Jeff Brady reports many say it is time to upgrade the country's electricity infrastructure.

JEFF BRADY, BYLINE: The electricity grid is more than wires. It's also power plants, big transmission towers and local utilities - everything that gets electricity to you. Much of that infrastructure was designed for a different era, says energy consultant Alison Silverstein.

ALISON SILVERSTEIN: We planned this grid for Ozzie and Harriet weather, and we are now facing Mad Max.

BRADY: These pop culture references are Silverstein's colorful way of saying that what worked in the 1950s, '60s and '70s needs to be updated for a future that includes climate change.

SILVERSTEIN: Everybody has always designed these systems looking in the rearview mirror.

BRADY: That made sense. Grid managers identified the worst-case weather scenario from the past and planned for that. But climate change is delivering weather that hasn't been experienced before. The number of weather disasters with losses over a billion dollars is increasing, according to the federal government. And the group Climate Central says that since 2000, there's a 67% increase in major power outages from weather and climate-related events. Each region has its own vulnerabilities. Take the Pacific Northwest and its massive hydropower dams, for example.

BEN KUJALA: Not only do we need to be worried about the cold weather events like you saw in Texas and the hot weather events like in California.

BRADY: Ben Kujala is at the Northwest Power and Conservation Council. They recently changed their planning models to look ahead and better prepare for how climate change alters when water flows through the dams. He says warming temperatures make it likely that mountain snowpack will melt earlier in the year.

KUJALA: And you have a lot more water running into those reservoirs in the winter when it used to be more of a spring phenomenon. And it might be that by summer, you're pretty much through all the snowpack, you've melted everything off, and you don't have that much precipitation. And you just have way less energy in the summer.

BRADY: Grid experts generally agree the country needs to build more transmission lines to get electricity from where it's produced to where it's needed. That would make it possible to add more cleaner sources of power like wind turbines, solar projects and batteries to store energy. Larry Gasteiger heads WIRES, a trade group advocating for more high-voltage transmission lines. He points out that President Biden set a goal of net-zero carbon emissions from the power sector by 2035. That may sound like a long time from now, but...

LARRY GASTEIGER: In the world of building transmission, it's really not that far off when you think you need a good 10-year lead time in order to get there.

BRADY: And Gasteiger says all that new transmission infrastructure, big towers and thick lines comes with a steep price tag.

GASTEIGER: Our study said up to $90 billion of investment by 2030, maybe as much as 600 billion in investment by 2050.

BRADY: Gasteiger suspects the Texas blackout will encourage policymakers to move on this issue soon. As expensive as this sounds, the Texas experience shows there's also a cost of not preparing the grid for more extreme weather in dollars and in lives. Jeff Brady, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Jeff Brady is a National Desk Correspondent based in Philadelphia, where he covers energy issues and climate change. Brady helped establish NPR's environment and energy collaborative which brings together NPR and Member station reporters from across the country to cover the big stories involving the natural world.
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