Texas is a huge market for wind power, but much of that capacity is untapped because of opposition to building new transmission lines.
The lack of transmission lines — and the relatively low price of natural gas — has thwarted the ambitions of wind-power advocates to expand the use of this alternative energy source in Texas. The oilman T. Boone Pickens, for example, bet heavily on wind a couple of years ago, ordering hundreds of turbines and announcing plans to build the world’s largest wind farm in the Panhandle at a cost of up to $12 billion. He later scaled back, canceling some of the turbine orders, giving up his land lease and saying he was looking elsewhere to build.The arguments against the transmission lines mirror those of the wind turbines or solar collectors - that their presence mars the landscape.
To encourage others, the state is moving forward on a contentious project to erect $5 billion worth of transmission wires to connect the turbines to the cities that need power. On Thursday, state regulators met in Austin and approved the route of a controversial line that will run about 140 miles through the Hill Country, one of the state’s most scenic regions.
Construction of the line — a project of the Lower Colorado River Authority that will run from Schleicher County to a substation near Comfort — should start next year. Last year, vigorous opposition, by landowners, wealthy newcomers and old-time families, succeeded in derailing plans for another line that the state had wanted to build through the area. Instead, the existing electric infrastructure will be upgraded to carry a greater load. The Public Utility Commission, which is overseeing the process, has also canceled plans for an additional segment of the Hill Country line discussed at the meeting Thursday.
“All Texans love their land,” Barry T. Smitherman, the commission chairman, said in an interview a few days ago. During the process of planning the routes for transmission lines, Mr. Smitherman said, “we didn’t please everyone, but I think with each of these we really tried to work hard to make it as acceptable as possible for the landowners.”
Texas embarked on the transmission line project, known as Competitive Renewable Energy Zones, several years ago. The need was clear: in West Texas, home to the vast majority of the state’s wind farms, so many turbines have been built over the past decade that some must be shut down during windy periods because there are not enough wires to transport the power. Texas is the leading wind-power state by far, with nearly three times as much capacity as the next-closest state, Iowa. Once built, the new lines are expected to span more than 2,300 miles.
The Hill Country is not the only part of Texas where resistance to new power lines has been fierce. Landowners near Palo Duro Canyon State Park in the Panhandle also put up vigorous opposition. Their arguments against one of the proposed lines prevailed, so it will be built elsewhere and not cross the dramatic canyon landscape. Nonetheless, another line could still go across the canyon. Residents of Denton County, north of Fort Worth, worry that a proposed line could cross landmarks like a park area called the Greenbelt or a Girl Scout camp.
Then, there's the issue of red tape in getting permits and approvals to build solar power projects. The amount of bureaucracy and red tape to build solar power projects - including retrofits on existing buildings, is curbing wider acceptance and implementation because of the added costs.