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White House announces a program aimed at improving the country's electric grid

JUANA SUMMERS, HOST:

Over a million electricity customers in Texas were without power today after severe storms rolled through the state over the Memorial Day weekend. While Texas has its own power grid, today the White House announced a program that could help make electricity more reliable for U.S. homes and businesses. Michael Copley from NPR's Climate Desk is here to talk about what the Biden administration is doing. Hi there.

MICHAEL COPLEY, BYLINE: Hey, Juana.

SUMMERS: Hey, Michael. So tell us. What did the White House announce today?

COPLEY: Yeah. So it's a program between the federal government and 21 states to try to make the electric grid work better. You know, the Biden administration has put a lot building more wind and solar plants to limit climate change. But power grids in the U.S. are old, and they can't handle all that new power. And that's creating long lines of projects that are waiting to connect into the grid. One solution is building more power lines, essentially expanding the grid. But that takes a long time, and it costs a lot of money. So the White House and states are also trying to roll out different technologies to get more out of the grid that's already been built. That means making sure the grid can handle more electricity and move it around to where it's needed most.

SUMMERS: Michael, folks who live in the southern U.S. already know heat waves - they're there already. And scientists say this could also be a record year for hurricanes. So the kind of technology you're talking about - could that help keep the lights on in that kind of extreme weather?

COPLEY: The short answer is yes. So one of the things that's getting a lot of attention right now is something called advanced conductoring. It's a wonky name. It really just means replacing old transmission lines with new wires that can carry a lot more electrical current. That could help companies connect more power plants to the grid, and it could make it easier to move electricity between different parts of the country. I talked to Michelle Solomon. She's a senior policy analyst at a research firm called Energy Innovation, and she says being able to move electricity around essentially provides a backup when the weather knocks out power plants in one part of the country.

MICHELLE SOLOMON: Usually, somebody's got a little bit extra. Somebody needs some help. So the more you can share, the more resilient you are.

COPLEY: She says it can also help reduce costs because sharing electricity can help limit how many new power plants need to be built.

SUMMERS: Right. I mean, I'm not an expert, but that seems like it could be pretty beneficial to me, at least. So tell me. Why is this not already happening?

COPLEY: Yeah. So one of the issues I've heard about is just the way that utility companies operate. For a lot of Americans, their utility makes more money if they invest in big projects. So replacing electrical wires might not actually be all that attractive to them because it's relatively quick and inexpensive. So one of these projects could take about two years to do. That compares to a decade or more for a brand-new transmission line. Solomon says the White House could create public pressure to start to change some of that dynamic and break through what she calls inertia in the utility industry.

SUMMERS: We have seen tons of pictures of power lines that have just absolutely crumpled in some of these recent devastating storms. Is this a solution for that problem?

COPLEY: No. There's stuff that can be done to make infrastructure stronger so it can withstand more extreme weather, but these new lines won't necessarily help with that. However, these advanced power lines that we're talking about are stronger, and they're lighter weight, and so one of the advantages is they don't sag like traditional power lines. And that's a really big deal because what we're seeing is some wildfires starting when power lines sag and rub up against tree branches. So this could be a way of reducing that kind of risk.

SUMMERS: NPR's Michael Copley. Michael, thank you.

COPLEY: Thanks so much.

(SOUNDBITE OF HI-TEK SONG, "ROUND AND ROUND") 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.

Michael Copley
Michael Copley is a correspondent on NPR's Climate Desk. He covers what corporations are and are not doing in response to climate change, and how they're being impacted by rising temperatures.