In the Heart of Texas, a Wind Power Transmission Snag

Nobody likes high-voltage transmission lines running through their backyards, not even deep in the energy-loving heart of Texas. Last week, a group of landowners (the Heart of Texas Landowners Coalition, in fact) persuaded the state’s Public Utilities Commission to force utility Oncor to reroute a planned $100 million transmission line around their property.

The new route won’t cost much more — about $110 million, said Lambeth Townsend, an Austin-based attorney representing the landowners. That’s out of a $5 billion statewide plan to build some 33 new transmission lines over the next three years, meant to carry about 12,000 megawatts of yet to be built wind power from wind-rich Competitive Energy Resource Zones (CREZs) in central and west Texas to population centers such as Dallas and Houston.

The regulator’s decision is a precursor to bigger battles to come in a looming challenge facing the state’s — and the country’s — transition to greener power. Getting solar and wind power from far-off resource-rich deserts and plains to population centers on the coasts will take hundreds of billions of dollars in new and upgraded transmission over the coming years. But those lines will by necessity cross the property of landowners both public and private — and that means NIMBY opposition.

President Barack Obama has called for 3,000 miles of new transmission lines to be built to help the country double its renewable energy use by 2012, but transmission lines can traditionally take decades to site, permit and build. To meet schedules for getting even one-fifth of the country’s power from renewable energy will take a much faster buildout. That won’t be easy.

In fact, Texas is one of the easier places to manage new transmission, given that the Electric Reliability Council of Texas (ERCOT) — the reigning authority over transmission lines in Texas — does its business entirely within the state’s borders. That means it isn’t subject to federal jurisdiction under the authority of the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC), which does hold some sway over transmission across state lines in the most populous regions of the country.

FERC Chairman Jon Wellinghoff has asked Congress to give the agency more power over siting and cost-allocation of new interstate transmission lines — a proposal that has raised the ire of some utilities. One big question is whether costs should be borne by everyone whose property is crossed or affected by the new lines, or only those utilities and regions that benefit from the new power. The American Clean Leadership Act — the Senate version of the energy bill — does contain language that would give FERC more authority over transmission lines, but with the fate of energy and climate legislation now under doubt for this year at least, it’s unclear how quickly increased authority for FERC might happen.

Outside the issue of who pays and who benefits from new transmission lines, property and environmental opposition are sure to remain key issues. California will need an estimated $15.7 billion in new transmission lines to meet its 2020 goal of getting one-third of its power from clean renewable resources. But one high-voltage line planned for Central California was stopped last year after complaints from landowners and the Ducks Unlimited hunters group, and another in San Diego and Imperial counties is being challenged on environmental grounds.

There are ways that utilities can minimize roadblocks to new transmission, Townsend said. In the case of the Heart of Texas Landowners Coalition, “The key thing, I believe, was that (Oncor’s) preferred route was sort of a straight line that didn’t follow property lines or existing rights of way,” he said.  “The criteria is to build the line, but with a minimal impact on landowners.” He said he doesn’t expect the decision to have a chilling effect on the roughly 24 transmission lines that remain to be sited and permitted in the state’s $5 billion plan.

What if the state builds new transmission lines and nobody builds the wind farms to supply them? The question needs to be asked, given that the state’s biggest proposed wind farm — T. Boone Pickens’s 152 megawatts of wind turbines in the Texas panhandle — has now transformed into a 78-megawatt project set for the upper Midwest or Canada. But Townsend said that Pickens wasn’t playing a role in the proposed wind power development meant to energize the $5 billion in new transmission lines at stake in the Heart of Texas case. Companies cited as being interested in building those lines, however, include Babcock and Brown, ITC Holdings Corp., FPL Group, AES, BP Wind, Shell WindEnergy and CenterPoint Energy — a group that not coincidentally includes some big wind power developers.

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