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Texas Isn't Alone. Winter Storms Could Cause An Infrastructure Crisis In Other States

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

Millions of Texans were left to fend for themselves last week in the cold, in the dark and often without water. Many who did have electricity following the storm are now stuck with gigantic bills - thousands of dollars in some cases. Now, Texas is not connected to the national power grid. It is known for deregulation. But Maggie Koerth, senior science writer for FiveThirtyEight, says plenty of other states could end up like Texas after a really bad winter day. She joins us now via Skype.

Maggie Koerth, welcome.

MAGGIE KOERTH: Hi. Thanks for having me.

KELLY: So in your view, how much of last week was a weather problem versus a Texas problem?

KOERTH: It's a weather problem, it's a Texas problem and it's an electric grid infrastructure problem. But the weather and the electric grid infrastructure issues - at least some of them - are things that apply nationwide.

KELLY: I suppose we should note, they were less widely covered, but there were also blackouts last week in Oklahoma and Mississippi and other states.

KOERTH: Yeah, exactly. It was easier, I think, for some of those other states to stay online more than Texas was because they had those interconnections and were able to share electricity and get it from other places. But there definitely still were blackouts. And we definitely still see blackouts happening across the United States on a large scale. You know, you guys had the 2003 blackout that took out most of the East Coast and Canada. And that really just came down to trees that hadn't been trimmed in Ohio.

KELLY: Is part of this that - whether it's Texas or other states that are connected to the national grid - many of them have infrastructure that is decades old, that is way overdue for modernization, that was not built with climate change and these extreme fluctuations in mind?

KOERTH: Right, that's exactly true. I mean, we saw that with the campfire in California, where a lot of what had happened there kind of came down to a 100-year-old transmission line running through the forest. You've got a lot of our electric infrastructure in the United States that's 50, 60, even 70 or 80 years old. Most of the big major upgrades that happened the last time were probably in the 1960s. And people have been talking about how we need to have major upgrades to this system since at least the Clinton administration. It's something where there's not a lot of incentive to fix it unless it's actually not working.

KELLY: Is there any state that has done this really well, that's nailed it?

KOERTH: You know, off the top of my head, I don't know the answer to that question.

KELLY: Yeah, but that's maybe telling that you can't think of a (laughter)...

KOERTH: (Laughter).

KELLY: ...Success case off the top of your head.

KOERTH: There's definitely been good work that's been done. I mean, Florida has put a lot of effort into building an electric grid that is resilient against hurricanes for obvious reasons. But, you know, the incentives for what kinds of supports different states have put in have been very state-specific and have been very disaster-specific. You know, there's been a lot of upgrades that have been made to the grid in New York and D.C., that only came after Superstorm Sandy happened and tore everything else out.

KELLY: So let's talk potential solutions. If there are a lot of states staring down this problem, should it be left to the states to try to fix it? What is the role here for federal leadership, for federal money?

KOERTH: Well, there's definitely a role for federal leadership and federal money. Like, if you look back at the 1930s, 1940s, there are large parts of America that did not get electricity at all until the federal government stepped in and spread the cost of building that infrastructure around in the form of taxes. And maybe something like that is going to have to happen again here. I don't know exactly what the correct best method of dealing with this is, but it is definitely one of those things where just kind of left to its own, there's not much incentive for the market to just handle it.

KELLY: That is Maggie Koerth. She is senior science editor for the data journalism website FiveThirtyEight.

Maggie Koerth, thank you.

KOERTH: Thank you so much for having me. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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