July 18, 2008

Texas OKs Major Wind-Power Project

Utility officials in Texas granted preliminary approval on Thursday to a $4.9 billion plan to build new transmission lines to carry wind-generated electricity from gusty West Texas to urban areas like Dallas in what experts are calling one of the biggest investments in clean and renewable energy in U.S. history.

"People think about oil wells and football in Texas, but in 10 years they'll look back and say this was a brilliant thing to do," said Patrick Woodson, vice president of E.On Climate & Renewables North America.

His company has about 1,200 megawatts of wind projects already in use or on the drawing board in Texas.

Generating about 5,000 megawatts, Texas is already the national leader in wind power. But wind-energy advocates say the lack of transmission lines has kept a lot of that power from being put to use and has hindered the building of more turbines.

Thursday's 2-1 vote by the Texas Public Utility Commission is critical to getting that energy to more people, according to supporters.

"We will add more wind than the 14 states following Texas combined," said PUC Commissioner Paul Hudson.

Most of Texas' wind-energy production is located in West Texas, where nearly 4,000 wind turbines can be seen spinning in the wind.

 The new plan would add transmission lines capable of moving about 18,000 megawatts. One expert said that is enough to power more than 4 million Texas homes.

Many say the plan will spur new wind power projects, create jobs, reduce pollution and lower energy costs. Texans pay some of the highest electric rates in the country, in part because of congested transmission lines.

Tom Smith, state director of the consumer group Public Citizen, said Texas electric customers will bear the cost of construction over the next several years, paying about $3 or $4 more per month on their bills, but he predicted that increase would easily be offset by lower energy prices.

"We have all these wind plants up and operating. What we're asking for is the superhighway to get the energy to the cities," Smith said. "This will send signals to manufacturers all across the world Texas is ready to be a world-class player in renewable energy."

The PCU must still extend final approval of the plan later this year. The transmission lines would not be up and running for three to five years. Who would build them and other details have yet to be worked out.

Still, there have been protests against wind turbines from Cape Cod in Massachusetts to Idaho and Texas' South Padre Island. Environmentalists and landowners complain that wind turbines spoil the view and threaten migrating birds.

But in West Texas, a sparsely populated region already pockmarked with oil drilling and exploration equipment, the turbines have already flourished. And this project will build only transmission lines.

Julie Caruthers Parsley, a PUC Commissioner, was the lone dissenter, arguing the plan may add too much power for the electric grid to handle. She also worried it could delay other projects, such as construction of nuclear reactors.

Companies that build wind and solar farms should bear more of the cost of the new lines, according to the conservative Texas Public Policy Foundation. They warned that those power sources couldn't be expected to consistently produce abundant energy.

"Even with the run-up in natural gas prices, more gas plants would be a good backup because the sun doesn't shine and the wind doesn't blow all the time," said Drew Thornley, a policy analyst for the organization.

Billionaire oilman T. Boone Pickens is planning to build the world's largest wind farm on about 200,000 acres in the Texas Panhandle. When completed, Pickens' 2,700 turbines will be capable of producing enough electricity to power 1.3 million homes.

Pickens has strongly believes wind power is a way to break the nation's dependence on foreign oil, launching an advertising blitz in which he warned: "I've been an oilman all my life, but this is one emergency we can't drill our way out of."

Pickens spokesman Jay Rosser said Thursday's PUC vote was a "good decision".

"It recognizes the important role wind in Texas will play in meeting the state's growing energy and energy stability needs."