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Texas power grid is challenged by electricity-loving computer data centers

MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

Texas is the only state in the continental U.S. with its own electric grid. And as summer heats up, officials are sounding alarms about the power supply. Energy-hungry tech, including data centers that support artificial intelligence and crypto mining, is expected to consume record levels of energy. And that's prompting calls for a new approach in Texas. From member station KUT in Austin, Mose Buchele has this report.

MOSE BUCHELE, BYLINE: Texas is no stranger to power grid anxiety. The state's grid operator, the Electric Reliability Council of Texas, issued 11 requests for statewide energy conservation last year. That same group, known here as ERCOT, puts the chance of rolling blackouts at around 12% this August. Now, some of those risks are not new. Texas summers are hot and - thanks to climate change - getting hotter. But like other places, Texas is also seeing a boom in computer data centers pulling ever more energy from the system.

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PABLO VEGAS: How many are coming? That's still TBD, but we know that they are explosively growing.

BUCHELE: At hearings this month at the state Capitol, Pablo Vegas, the CEO of ERCOT, told lawmakers many of those centers mine cryptocurrency, and more and more are being built to support artificial intelligence systems. They are drawn to the state thanks to low energy costs, minimal regulation and a booming economy. But Vegas says they use a lot of energy.

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VEGAS: Like, if you do a traditional Google search and just look up, you know, what is ERCOT? - if you did that with a regular Google system versus an AI Google search, the amount of energy that it takes to run the AI search is between 10 and 30 times the power requirement to do a traditional Google search.

BUCHELE: Now, those estimates vary. But it's clear that Texas in particular could find that growing energy demand challenging. Ever since a deadly blackout in 2021, officials here have worked to strengthen the power grid. They've started programs to subsidize new power plants and improve transmission lines, but those things take years. Data centers - some that use as much energy as small cities - can be built in just a matter of months, says Doug Lewin. He publishes the Texas Energy and Power Newsletter.

DOUG LEWIN: And so how do you build enough infrastructure to accommodate a new city popping up in six months with effectively no notice?

BUCHELE: The answer? Maybe they don't. State officials have long declared Texas open for business to lure companies here from other places, but now some wonder whether data centers are worth it. Even the state's Republican lieutenant governor, Dan Patrick, has questioned whether the jobs and money the centers bring justify their high energy demand. Again, Doug Lewin.

LEWIN: And that's, like, wild to think about because, again, that's a huge, huge break from the way things have been done.

BUCHELE: Now grid operators are asking for new regulations. They want to get a better sense of how many new facilities are coming online and to get them to agree to ramp down power use when needed. These so-called demand-side solutions that don't involve building new power plants are exactly what will be needed into the future, says Alison Silverstein, a former state and federal grid regulator.

ALISON SILVERSTEIN: We cannot grow the grid fast enough to keep up with demand, even before we had every crypto and data center and blah, blah, blah trying to move to Texas.

BUCHELE: Texas currently consumes more energy than any other state. Silverstein says improving efficiency standards so that people simply need less power to cool their homes, run their appliances and do business would also go a long way to keeping the lights on. But she says using less is a hard sell in Texas, a state known for producing energy, not conserving it.

For NPR News, I'm Mose Buchele in Austin.

(SOUNDBITE OF AMIR BRESLER'S "AFRO GOLDEN LINE") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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Mose Buchele
Mose Buchele is the Austin-based broadcast reporter for KUT's NPR partnership StateImpact Texas . He has been on staff at KUT 90.5 since 2009, covering local and state issues. Mose has also worked as a blogger on politics and an education reporter at his hometown paper in Western Massachusetts. He holds masters degrees in Latin American Studies and Journalism from UT Austin.