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Much of the U.S. could see power blackouts this summer, a grid assessment reveals

RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

Some troubling news as we inch towards summer - parts of the U.S. power grid face high risks of outages. A new grid reliability report shows that places in the Midwest, California and Texas may not have enough power as temperatures rise and residents crank up air conditioners. NPR's Laura Benshoff reports.

LAURA BENSHOFF, BYLINE: Most of the country west of Ohio could see blackouts this summer.

JOHN MOURA: It's a pretty sobering report, and it's clear the risks are spreading.

BENSHOFF: That's John Moura with the North American Reliability Corporation, who says, compared to years past, things do not look good. Let's start in the Midwest, where the picture looks the worst, especially in Illinois, Indiana, Missouri and Michigan. The grid operator there may not have enough energy to meet normal summer peak demand, according to the organization's assessment. What is summer peak demand? Picture everyone running their AC full blast all at once. The report warns the region will operate with very little reserves, especially if temperatures are more extreme or there's a storm that causes outages.

Todd Hillman, a VP with the Midwest grid operator, compares it to driving with just a little gas in your tank.

TODD HILLMAN: So if the car runs perfectly, you might be able to make it to the next exit. But we don't like to try and take those chances.

BENSHOFF: In the West, things look better but not great. Drought has reduced the amount of hydropower available. That's an issue because hydro is a major source of renewable energy in the region. And in Texas, heat is already baking residents and pushing up energy demand. When six power plants unexpectedly went down last week, the grid company called on residents to turn their AC up to 78 degrees to conserve energy. Despite this rocky start, Brad Jones, interim CEO of the Electric Reliability Council of Texas, or ERCOT, tried to put residents at ease that they'll have power this summer.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

BRAD JONES: Bottom line for each of you is that we feel very confident about the summer. Our reserves have gone up relative to last summer.

BENSHOFF: But heat and drought, both of which are exacerbated by climate change, still pose risks to the reliable flow of energy in the Lone Star State, according to the grid reliability assessment. That's a fundamental change in how we think about our power, says Peter Larsen, department head at the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory.

PETER LARSEN: Historically, power outages almost always occur at the distribution level - the local power lines serving your neighborhood that get knocked over because of a windstorm hitting a tree that then drops on the line.

BENSHOFF: Now he says Americans also have to worry about systemwide issues that could turn the lights or the AC off.

Laura Benshoff, NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF YPPAH'S "SHOT INTO THE SUN") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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