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Heat Wave Has Sparked Another Round Of Grid Problems In Texas

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

The Texas electrical grid is facing more problems. To avoid power cuts during a heat wave, people are being asked to conserve energy this week, and that's fueling frustration that lawmakers have still not helped those who suffered during a devastating blackout back in February. Mose Buchele of member station KUT in Austin reports.

MOSE BUCHELE, BYLINE: Carolyn Rivera is a 77-year-old retired schoolteacher. She's lived in her east Houston neighborhood for 40 years - lived through hurricanes and heat waves but nothing like last February, when her power went out for over four days.

CAROLYN RIVERA: It was so cold in here until my bed was like a block of ice.

BUCHELE: Her water pipes froze and burst.

RIVERA: Imagine being in your home without being able to even use the bathroom properly for that many days and not having water. That was horrifying.

BUCHELE: Then after the power was restored, she had to deal with the costs. She says repairing her plumbing was over $3,000. Like many of her neighbors, she's on a fixed income and doesn't have a lot of money. The unexpected expense is something she's still struggling with. So this week's request to conserve energy, she's already been doing that.

RIVERA: I turn my air way up to, like, 83 because of the fear of getting an electric bill that I'm not able to pay.

BUCHELE: After the crisis, state lawmakers passed a handful of reforms aimed at preventing another blackout. Those include winterizing power plants, creating a grid emergency alert system and cracking down on certain risky retail electric plants. Governor Greg Abbott touted those accomplishments.

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GREG ABBOTT: Bottom line is that everything that needed to be done was done to fix the power grid in Texas.

BUCHELE: Many energy analysts dispute that. They say major market reforms are needed to make the grid more reliable - case in point, this week's plea for conservation after a bunch of power plants broke down. Another thing state leaders did not do - offer direct relief to consumers like Rivera. On the contrary, critics say new laws will mean higher electricity bills well into the future. Tim Morstad works on utility issues for the Texas AARP.

TIM MORSTAD: It really is a, you know, heads-we-win, tails-you-lose proposition for the electric companies. The ratepayers are really left holding the bag on this one.

BUCHELE: What he's referring to are multibillion-dollar bailouts state lawmakers approved this year for some electric companies and gas utilities. Under those plans, companies will be able to pay down their blackout-related debt by increasing utility bills a few bucks a month for decades to come. Defenders of the program say they'll reduce the pain of higher bills by spreading it out over time. Kelly Hancock is a Republican state senator who spoke at a recent bill signing event.

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KELLY HANCOCK: We wanted to take care of consumers and make sure that we had a reliable, affordable and a system that would maintain an integrity for our economy to continue to grow at the record pace that it's grown for years to come.

BUCHELE: But critics say direct assistance would do that better, and they want lawmakers to take that up in a special session. If they do, Carolyn Rivera says she'll be there advocating for ratepayer relief. She says, with heat bearing down already and hurricane season here, many Texans will need all the help they can get just to stay safe in their homes.

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

(SOUNDBITE OF SUFJAN STEVENS SONG, "SISTER") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.