Let the wind power blow in Texas By Barry T. Smitherman

Texas is number one in wind energy, not least for its forward-looking approach to getting transmission built to serve its wind projects. Here is an excellent article by the state’s Public Utilities Commission Chairman Barry T. Smitherman on how the commission is approaching the prospect of approving transmission in the Texas Panhandle.

Chris Madison (AWEA)

Let the wind blow in Texas

AUSTIN – Today we have enough wind turbines in Texas to produce nearly 100 times more pollution-free electricity than the turbines we had in place 10 years ago. These high-tech windmills now can generate almost 10,000 megawatts, enough electricity to power 3.5 million Texas homes during the hottest weather of the year.

We have more wind energy than every other state and all but a handful of countries. However, most of the development to date has occurred in the Midland to Sweetwater corridor, not in the Panhandle.

While the Panhandle has some of the best wind resources in North America, there aren’t enough power lines to support meaningful wind development. Therefore, it’s time to build the transmission lines needed to deliver this clean, Texas- based energy source to the rest of our growing state and continue to lower electricity prices in the process. And we must do it in a way that respects private property rights and maintains the natural beauty of the Texas Panhandle.

Two years ago, we determined that spending about $5 billion for new transmission would allow almost 19,000 megawatts of wind energy to develop in Texas. A large chunk of that money will be spent in and around the Panhandle creating new jobs and new construction contracts. That’s good news, especially during these economically challenging times.

Over the next several months, my fellow commissioners and I will decide where to site dozens of miles of high capacity transmission lines throughout the Panhandle. These lines will provide the "pipes" necessary for wind developers to get their "product" to the D-FW, Waco, Austin and San Antonio markets. Without these new lines, wind development in the Panhandle, and the jobs that go with them, will simply not happen. Since electric ratepayers throughout most of Texas will pay for these new lines, the commission must also be mindful of the costs involved.

Many Panhandle residents tell me their concerns about where the proposed power lines may be located. Most do not want the lines going through their property or through especially scenic natural areas, although some have asked me to place power lines in their county so that their schools and local governments could benefit from the increase in the property tax base. A concern I have heard much about involves the possibility of lines running near Palo Duro Canyon State Park, one of the most unique and beautiful areas of Texas. The preliminary maps I have seen have route options running north and south of the state park but not through it.

The commission has directed the companies which will build these lines to follow the law and our rules in devising various route options, and to show us a robust set of alternative routes so that we can minimize the impacts. The law says that in approving an application to build a transmission line, the Commission must consider, among other factors, (a) community values, (b) recreational and park areas, (c) historical and aesthetic values, and (d) environmental integrity. In addition, the commission’s rules require us to consider the use of existing rights of way, consider paralleling existing rights of way or property lines, and avoid habitable structures. The commission also has the power to require utilities to use monopoles (single leg poles) or other construction techniques that are more appealing to landowners, and we often do so when landowners ask us to.

I can’t comment on any contested case for a specific transmission route. But I can tell you that I’ve spent a lot of time in the Panhandle, and I know your concerns – protecting private landowner rights, maintaining the beauty of the caprock and canyon country, and creating jobs and economic development.

And, while a few landowner issues take place outside the commission’s jurisdiction, such as the value of property acquired through eminent domain, we take landowner issues seriously. For example, last year the commission chose not to allow a municipal utility based in the Dallas area to build power lines in the Panhandle because our lack of authority over municipal utilities made it difficult for us to insure that the proposed lines would be built in the right places with the right materials at the right cost.

I’ve been on the commission for almost six years and chairman the past two years. Siting transmission lines is a difficult task. However it is part of our job and I commit that we will continue to do so in a way that respects landowners, preserves the natural beauty of Texas, and increases our state’s use of renewable energy.

Barry T. Smitherman is chairman of the Public Utility Commission of Texas.