Jul 12, 2021 - Podcasts

The power grid is stretched thin

Stories of how extreme heat and wildfires are affecting communities are pouring out of the Western U.S. and Canada. One that caught our eye is out of Oregon, where a wildfire is threatening power grid lines in North California. This comes as the power grid is stretched thin across much of the country

  • Plus, migration trends between the U.S. and Mexico are flipping.
  • And, how self-driving car technology can be used for wheelchairs.

Guests: Axios' Andrew Freedman, Stef Kight and Joann Muller.

Credits: Axios Today is produced in partnership with Pushkin Industries. The team includes Niala Boodhoo, Sara Kehaulani Goo, Dan Bobkoff, Alexandra Botti, Justin Kaufmann, Nuria Marquez Martinez, Sabeena Singhani and Alex Sugiura. Music is composed by Evan Viola. You can reach us at [email protected]

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NIALA BOODHOO: Good morning! Welcome to Axios Today!

It’s Monday, July 12th. I’m Niala Boodhoo.

Here’s what we’re watching today: why migration trends between the U.S. and Mexico have flipped. Plus, how self-driving car technology can improve wheelchairs.

But first, today’s one big thing: heat and wildfires are pushing the Western grid to the brink.

Stories of how extreme heat and wildfires are affecting communities are pouring out of the Western U.S. and Canada. One that caught our eye is out of Oregon, where a wildfire is threatening power grid lines in Northern California. This as the grid is stretched thin across much of the country. Axios’ Andrew Freedman has the latest on the heat and fires. Hey Andrew.


NIALA: Before we get to the grid, can you give us the latest on the wildfires out west?

ANDREW: Yeah, So the wildfire situation is, as expected, not good. When you get an extreme heat event in the middle of a drought, we have numerous fires across the Pacific Northwest that have been doubling in size each day with such extreme fire behavior, which means that they’re really creating their own weather systems and they're very, very hard for firefighters to fight them. Most of these fires, like from Saturday to Sunday, one of them, the Bootleg Fire, which is the one that concerns the power lines, had doubled in size to about 150,000 acres.

NIALA: When you say that they're creating their own weather systems, what does that mean?

ANDREW: Because there's so much heat involved and because the temperatures are so extreme and the dryness is so extreme, they're able to suck in air around them. They're able to change the air circulation in that region and release tremendous amounts of heat aloft into the atmosphere. So you'll see giant thunder clouds created by these fires. These fires are actually spawning lightning which is in turn creating other fires downwind. So they are creating their own kind of, extreme weather conditions even though extreme weather is giving rise to them in the first place.

NIALA: The Bootleg Fire has doubled in size over the weekend in Oregon. How is that putting pressure on the grid in California?

ANDREW: So the grid connection between California and Oregon consists basically of several parallel high voltage power lines, you know, of the sort that you might pass while driving on a highway and seeing them high above that highway. They're just at high altitude, about 6,500 feet, and they are directing power from Oregon into California.

And what's happening is you have this huge fire near, close enough to these power lines to threaten to knock them out either out of service or burn them completely. You know, sometimes their fate is not quite known. So it's a very direct impact between the power lines and the grid connection between the Oregon and California and that's worth, you know, several thousand megawatts of electricity, between Oregon and California.

It's about 4,800 megawatts of electricity that they would lose in California if these power lines were completely taken out. That's not an unmitigated disaster scenario. However it would be felt by Californians. It would be something that they might trigger a higher degree of alert in California and say, "Okay, well, instead of asking people to conserve, we’re actually going to do some rolling blackouts."

NIALA: Axios’ Andrew Freedman. Thank you, Andrew.

ANDREW: Thanks for having me.

NIALA: We’ll be back in 15 seconds with changing migration at the Southern U.S. border.

NIALA: Welcome back to Axios Today! I’m Niala Boodhoo.

So much of the conversation around migration between the U.S. and Mexico focuses on Mexicans coming to the U.S. but migration between the two countries isn't a one-way street. Axios’ Stef Kight has been tracking a new Pew Research Center report that explains some of this and she joins us now to catch us up. Hey, Stef.

STEF KIGHT: Hi, Niala.

NIALA: How many people are we talking about here?

STEF: So the main finding from this report is that although between 2005 and about 2014, there've been more people leaving the U.S. for Mexico than Mexicans coming to the U.S., between 2013 and 2018, which was the most recent period that Pew Research studied, they saw that shift back to there being more Mexicans coming into the U.S., rather than people leaving the U.S. from Mexico.

NIALA: Why is it changing?

STEF: So there are a couple of different things. Before the early 2000s and the 90s and 80s, there were a lot more migrants coming to the U.S. from Mexico and that number was 2.3 million between 1995 and 2000. That was a net number of Mexicans who were coming to the U.S. So 2.3 million more Mexicans came to the U.S. during those years then left. You know, there are a couple of things that impacted the switch - one of them being the 2008 financial crisis. When there weren't as many jobs, it was less of a pull for migrants coming to the U.S. Another thing that researchers pointed out was the fact that the birth rate has been falling in Mexico. So there may be fewer young adults who would typically be the population moving to the U.S. to take jobs.

NIALA: So this is all looking backwards. What do demographers or migration experts expect now or for 2021?

STEF: You know, one thing that they're watching is how, of course, the coronavirus pandemic impacts this because the border shut down and lots of legal means of immigrating into the U.S. were closed down as well to prevent the virus from spreading. The numbers in 2020 when you look at different visas were really low, especially for visas people from Mexico usually use to come to the U.S. So we're waiting to see kind of how that impacts the numbers and whether we'll continue to see more Mexicans coming to the U.S. or whether, again, because of the pandemic we see actually more people leaving the U.S. for Mexico than there are people coming to the U.S.

NIALA: Stef Kight covers politics and migration for Axios. Thanks, Stef.

STEF: Thanks for having me.

NIALA: The technology behind self-driving vehicles could be used to make motorized wheelchairs smarter. That's what Axios’ Joann Muller has been reporting from Detroit. Hi, Joann, how are wheelchairs getting the Tesla treatment?

JOANN MULLER: So there's a company called LUCI that is adding a lot of the sensors like cameras and radar and ultrasonic sensors onto a wheelchair so that it can actually stop itself if there's an obstacle and it can avoid tipping over and things like that. It even has wi-fi and Bluetooth on it.

NIALA: How expensive is this technology to be adapted to these wheelchairs?

JOANN: LUCI is sold for about $8,500, which sounds like a lot of money but when you think that you're paying anywhere from $30,000 to $90,000 for the chair itself, which is customized for each user, it really seems like that's worth making it smarter.

NIALA: How do you think it improves these wheelchairs?

JOANN: A lot of people in motorized wheelchairs might not necessarily have good vision, right? So they can't see what obstacles are near them. There might be a baby or a pet crawling behind them. If they're going backwards, they might not see that. They can also avoid tipping over uneven pavement or curbs and things like that. Believe it or not, wheelchair users have a lot of accidents and collisions.

NIALA: Axios’ Joann Muller. Thank you, Joann.

JOANN: Thank you, Niala.

NOVAK DJOKOVIC: Last 10 years has been an incredible journey, um, that is not stopping here.

NIALA: Before we go today - the Wimbledon portion of our summer - or maybe I should say my summer - ended this weekend. Novak Djokovic won the men’s title - securing a new place in the history books joining greats Rafael Nadal and Roger Federer, each having 20 titles to their name.

Djokovic’s win in London yesterday means he’s still on track for a potential Golden Slam - that’s winning not just a Grand Slam - the Australian, French, Wimbledon and U.S. Open - but also the gold medal at this year’s Olympics. What a year.

That’s it for us today! You can always send us feedback by emailing us at [email protected] You can message me on Twitter. Or you can also text me at (202) 918-4893.

I’m Niala Boodhoo - thanks for listening - stay safe and we’ll see you back here tomorrow morning.

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