New Rule Sets Stage For Electric Grid Update

12:11 minutes

silhouette of high voltage power lines against a colorful sky at sunrise or sunset.
Credit: Shutterstock

The US electric grid is straining to keep up with demand. For starters, our warming climate means more electricity is needed to keep people cool. Last summer—which was the hottest on record—energy demand in the US experienced an all-time hourly peak. And even though more renewable energy is being produced, our current grid, largely built in the 1960s and 1970s, was not built to handle those needs. Increased use of AI and cryptocurrency, which require power-hungry data centers, have only increased the burden on the grid.

But on Monday, the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission approved new rules to upgrade the grid to accommodate rising demands. The policy includes approval for the construction of new transmission lines and modification of existing transmission facilities.

Casey Crownhart, climate reporter for the MIT Technology Review, joins Ira to talk about this and other science stories of the week, including how a recent ocean heatwave will impact ocean life and the upcoming hurricane season, a new self-collection test for cervical cancer, and how a tiny beetle uses audio mimicry to avoid being eaten by bats.

Further Reading

Segment Guests

Casey Crownhart

Casey Crownhart is a climate reporter for MIT Technology Review in New York, New York.

Segment Transcript

IRA FLATOW: This is Science Friday. I’m Ira Flatow. Later in the hour, we’re going to talk about new breast-cancer screening guidelines and why they were updated. Plus, we’ll dive into new findings that suggest that the forces of dark energy may not be as constant as astronomers thought, and that’s a big thing in the world of cosmology.

But first, it’s no secret that the US needs to update its electric grid. As our climate gets warmer, more electricity is required to keep people cool. And even though more renewable energy is being produced, our current grid, largely built in the 1960s and ’70s, was not meant to handle those needs, especially now that AI and crypto mining are eating up so much juice.

The good news? Last Monday, new federal rules were approved to upgrade the grid to accommodate those new demands. So what are they and when will they be implemented? Here to tell us more about this and other news this week is Casey Crownhart, climate reporter for the MIT Technology Review. Welcome back to Science Friday.

CASEY CROWNHART: Thanks so much for having me back. Happy to be here.

IRA FLATOW: Nice to have you. So tell us about these new rules.

CASEY CROWNHART: Yeah, so like you said, these are from the US Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, and they’re basically designed to help overhaul our grid. We have a massive line of new projects waiting to connect. We just need to build a lot more transmission. So, basically, the commission has addressed the need for long-term planning in these rules. It requires people who own transmission infrastructure to conduct long-term, 20-year plans to figure out what is needed in the future for the grid and then also help to solve the problem of who pays for upgrades to the grid. So it’ll make them make plans in advance for that sort of thing. So it could really help build out our grid.

IRA FLATOW: Yeah, that’s something that we really need, isn’t it?

CASEY CROWNHART: Absolutely. Like you said, just between more energy needed for air conditioning– we’re electrifying a lot of stuff, being able to charge electric vehicles, data centers. We need a lot more capacity on the grid.

IRA FLATOW: Yeah, that’s true. All right, let’s turn towards the ocean. And now I’m not surprised that it just broke a record heat wave, right?

CASEY CROWNHART: Yeah, it’s been pretty constantly hot in the ocean, pretty much around the world but especially in the North Atlantic. There was this streak for over a year where, every single day, the temperatures broke a new record. So we’re seeing the ocean heating up. There’s a lot climate change has to do with it, but also there’s a lot of other stuff, and scientists actually aren’t entirely sure why the ocean is getting as hot as it is.

IRA FLATOW: Could this then lead to a very dangerous hurricane season that we’re going to be entering into?

CASEY CROWNHART: Absolutely. So we’ve started to see research groups release their predictions for this year’s hurricane season, and pretty much everybody is saying that we’re going to see a more active season than average.

IRA FLATOW: Yeah, they’re talking about numerous major hurricanes, right?

CASEY CROWNHART: Yes. So the long-term average is 14 named storms, so that’s hurricanes plus tropical storms. Some scientists are saying we’re going to get at least 20 named storms. One group actually even predicted up to 33 named storms. So, yeah, get ready for a pretty wild hurricane season.

IRA FLATOW: Yeah, add to that we’re heading into a La Niña conditions, and woo. Who knows?

CASEY CROWNHART: Yeah, so that’s part of it for sure. La Niña is one of those kind of natural shifts in climate and weather patterns, so we do usually see more active hurricane seasons in La Niña years. So that’s definitely part of what’s happening here.

IRA FLATOW: Now, I understand that another side effect of rising ocean temperatures could be something called jellification.

CASEY CROWNHART: Yes, another thing to be concerned about. So basically as the oceans more close to the poles get warmer, some species of jellyfish and other kind of related creatures could expand towards the poles. And so this, I don’t know, might not sound like a big deal, but scientists say that as they’ve modeled this, they found that these jellyfish could cause a huge problem in some ecosystems.

IRA FLATOW: Because they’re looking for colder water.

CASEY CROWNHART: Yes. They are used to a certain temperature, and as water gets warmer farther north, they’ll kind of naturally expand a little bit. And this could be a problem because they can outcompete fish. Some of these bigger jellyfish will kind of fill that same role, and so it could be a problem for a lot of fish.

IRA FLATOW: I can see a new movie, horror movie coming out taking on the sharks. That’s something else. Let’s not go there.

Let’s stay with nature because last Friday, we saw all these pictures of the colorful auroras on social media for many parts of the world where we don’t usually see them, and it was the result of a huge solar storm. And there was another flare on Tuesday. Tell us about that.

CASEY CROWNHART: Yes. It’s been wild on the sun. Basically, the sun has been really active. There are these kind of natural solar cycles. So every 11 years, we get about four peaks in the. solar cycle. And so there are just naturally times when the sun is basically just flinging out these blobs of plasma. They have strong magnetic fields, and it makes our Earth’s magnetic field go a little haywire.

IRA FLATOW: Yeah, it was affecting, I understand, the GPS systems of tractors. Were they going all over the field instead of those neat little rows?

CASEY CROWNHART: Yeah, so I don’t know how familiar you are with how farming works today, but it’s really high tech, totally high tech. And so a lot of these GPS systems go down to an inch so they can map where the tractor is going in a field and plant crops as close together as possible. And so part of this solar storm, it broke a lot of these kind of GPS systems as tractors talk to satellites and talk to equipment on the ground. So a lot of farmers had to stop planting or get delayed. I have family in Wisconsin, so I was chatting with a friend there, and he was saying that they had to delay a lot of their planting, getting the corn in the ground.

IRA FLATOW: Who would have thunk–

CASEY CROWNHART: I know. Yeah, it’s wild.

IRA FLATOW: –this unexpected consequence? And, well, just to be sure, this solar activity is somewhat regular, right? It’s part of an 11-year solar cycle.

CASEY CROWNHART: Yes. Yeah. So we do see these natural ebbs and flows, but it’s a little bit tricky to detect when these storms are going to be really strong. We do kind of get a couple of days’ notice that scientists can try to predict when a solar storm is coming, but the inner machinations of the sun are a little bit opaque.

IRA FLATOW: This week, moving on, the FDA approved a self-collection screening for cervical cancer. Tell us what’s significant about that. Explain that, please.

CASEY CROWNHART: Yeah, so cervical cancer is one of the most common types of cancer, and nearly all kinds of cervical cancer are caused by infection with HPV, the human papillomavirus. Anyone can contract this virus, and it can cause cervical cancer over time, usually, kind of a longstanding infection. There is a vaccine for cervical cancer, and we do have screening tests for it, but there’s a big kind of disparity in access to that, both to the vaccine and to screening.

Usually the test for HPV is done in gynecologists’ office, and for a lot of different reasons, people might not go there. So the FDA wants to open up where and how people can get screened for HPV.

IRA FLATOW: And so does that mean at home or in health-care facilities? Where?

CASEY CROWNHART: Yeah, so not quite home yet. So this move by the FDA opened up screening to allow patients to collect their own test samples, so like just doing a little swab. So patients will be able to do this in private rooms at their primary-care physician’s office, in an urgent care. Think somewhere that you might give a urine sample. So not quite at home yet, but that could be the next stage is allowing home testing for HPV.

IRA FLATOW: That is really interesting and something that, hopefully, will be very useful.

And sticking with health news for a bit, the first person to receive a kidney transplant from a genetically modified pig has, unfortunately, passed away.

CASEY CROWNHART: Yeah, so kidneys are one of the most needed organs for people who need organ donors. There’s a wait list of usually tens of thousands of people long in the US to get a kidney. And so researchers have been looking into using pig organs, which tend to be around the right size to go into human patients that need them. The problem is that often your immune system would reject these organs, and so we have to kind of genetically tweak the pigs to make these organs work.

So this patient– his name was Rick Slayman– received a kidney from a pig a couple of months ago. And unfortunately, yeah, he just passed away.

IRA FLATOW: Now, do we know if it had anything to do with the organ itself?

CASEY CROWNHART: Scientists haven’t– they haven’t said yet many details. There’s no reason to think that there was anything in particular wrong with this. There were some signs of organ rejection about a week after his transplant. He got treated with drugs, and everything was fine. He actually got to go home for a little while. So it’s not totally clear why this happened, but usually people who are doing these experimental medical procedures, they tend to be kind of in a rough health situation.

IRA FLATOW: Casey, this sounds really similar to a patient who got a genetically modified pig heart late last year and then passed away, right?

CASEY CROWNHART: Yes. So a couple of people got– yes, exactly. I actually, when I saw this headline, I was confused because I remembered that story. But yeah, those were hearts. And yes, both patients who got those passed away a couple of months after their transplants as well. So we’re still kind of working out how to make this work for people. And it’s unfortunate for these families, but, again, these people wouldn’t probably have gotten a human kidney, so it, at least hopefully, gave them a little bit more time.

IRA FLATOW: And the first human heart transplants were failures, too. So it took a while to straighten all of that out, so hopefully this will work.

Finally, we’ve got a really interesting story here. It involves bats, beetles, and a battle of echolocation. Tell us what’s going on.

CASEY CROWNHART: Yes, so this is a great story about acoustic camouflage. So usually when we think about animals trying to do camouflage, it involves looking like something else, blending in, or looking like something poisonous. But researchers have found that some species of tiger beetles might be trying to sound like something else.

So when tiger beetles hear the echolocation clicks from bats, they release these high-pitched clicks that might be mimicking the noises that toxic moths make. So they’re trying to fool the bats into thinking, hey, I don’t taste good. I’m a poisonous moth.

IRA FLATOW: Just like radar jamming, right?

CASEY CROWNHART: Absolutely. Yeah, so actually, some moths do have sound-absorbing wings and fuzz on their wings or on their bodies, which helps them fool bat sonar. But this is the first nonmoth to use this sort of acoustic trickery.

IRA FLATOW: And there’s a somewhat related story, new research out this week about how the body part that beluga whales use for echolocation could have another purpose.

CASEY CROWNHART: Yes. It’s called their melon, actually. It’s a mass of fat tissue on their forehead that, like you said, it helps project the sounds for echolocation. But researchers also think that beluga whales might be using these little forehead bumps to communicate with each other. It’s not totally clear if that’s their intention, but researchers noticed that these little melons, males tend to shake them around when they’re courting females. They kind of push them out when they’re trying to maybe be aggressive. So it’s hard to tell exactly what’s going on, but yeah.

IRA FLATOW: So just to be clear, they can change the shape of their melon in communication?

CASEY CROWNHART: Yes. Yeah. So they can push it out, make it look a little bigger, or they can kind of wobble it around. Yeah, just a way to kind of maybe communicate with each other. But researchers want to figure out if this is something just in this particular population of belugas they were looking at, if it’s all beluga whales, what the deal is there.

IRA FLATOW: That is really cool. You’re always bringing us cool stuff, Casey. Thanks for taking time to be with us today.

CASEY CROWNHART: Thanks so much for having me back. Always a blast.

IRA FLATOW: Casey Crownhart, climber reporter for the MIT Technology Review.

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