By MATTHEW L. WALD – JULY 23, 2014
CreditDavid Bowser for The New York Times
PANHANDLE, Tex. — The wind is so relentless that a week can go by before it is calm enough for a crane operator to install the 30-ton blades atop the 260-foot towers at the Panhandle 2 wind farm here. It’s worth the wait; a single turbine at the farm can produce 40 percent more energy than an average one.
But turning wind into electricity is one thing; moving the energy to a profitable market is another. For years, the wind industry has been hampered by such a severe lack of transmission lines that when the wind is strong, a local power surplus forces some machines to be shut down.
Now, Texas is out to change that by conducting a vast experiment that might hold lessons for the rest of the United States. This year, a sprawling network of new high-voltage power lines was completed, tying the panhandle area and West Texas to the millions of customers around Dallas-Fort Worth, Austin and Houston.
The project, its supporters say, is essential if states are ever to wean their reliance on fossil fuels and meet new federally mandated rules to reduce carbon emissions.
A wind farm in the Texas panhandle. Credit David Bowser for The New York Times
By any standard, the scale is enormous. Anywhere else, a big transmission project is a few hundred miles long and costs a few hundred million dollars; this is a network of 3,600 miles built at a cost of $7 billion, which is more money than the whole country has spent on transmission in some recent years. It comes to about $300 per person served by the Texas grid.
Nationally, transmission infrastructure is built only when circumstances demand it; in Texas, however, lawmakers have ordered an “if-you-build-it, they-will-come” approach.
And it is working. “We’ve built it and they’re marching this way,” said Warren Lasher, the director of system planning at the Electric Reliability Council of Texas, the grid operator, citing plans for new wind farms.
Encouraged by the new power lines and by federal tax credits that were available only to projects that broke ground by the end of last year, developers had started work on 7,000 megawatts of capacity by the end of 2013.
In a hushed control room near Austin, about a dozen technicians sitting among banks of computer screens watch the power flows and conditions, as more wind farms pump current into the system. The new lines are meant to handle up to 18,000 megawatts — millions of households. While there are still problems — the wind generally does not blow strongly on the hottest days, when its power generation is needed most, for example — scientists say that the supply will become somewhat more stable as more transmission lines, and more wind farms, are built in diverse locations.
The Legislature began the planning for the new lines in 2005, pushed not so much by environmentalists as by big wind companies, which argued that the lines would be an economic stimulus, and that planning would break a stalemate in wind industry development. Local officials were enthusiastic.
In Carson County, of which Panhandle is the seat, the winds were never seen as a blessing.
With utilities paying to secure rights of way for the new lines, wind energy is income for farmers and for the county itself, said Lewis Powers, the chairman of the county commissioners court. The county’s tax base, about $850 million last year, will exceed $1 billion this year, he said.
The decision by the Legislature to build the lines set off a planning process that forced the wind developers to cluster together, into what are called competitive renewable energy zones, or CREZ.
Now, wind developers, reassured by the certainty of transmission, are building. The Panhandle 1 and Panhandle 2 wind farms cover two-thirds of the width of Carson County. Panhandle 1 entered service this month; Panhandle 2 will come by September. Together they are 400 megawatts, which means when the wind is strong, they are as powerful as a midsize coal plant.
Cattle graze obliviously among some of the wind towers. Other towers are squeezed into the unused, odd-shaped corners of square fields where farmers have installed circular irrigation systems. “From our perspective, the CREZ lines have been fantastic,” said Michael Garland, president of Pattern Energy Group, which developed the wind farms.
But not everyone is sold.
Carol Biedrzycki, executive director of the Texas Ratepayers’ Organization to Save Energy, and a customer of Austin’s municipal utility, said that she supported more renewable energy, but that “we’re supposed to have an electricity market where the power producers are taking the risks.”
Instead, the $7 billion is being paid for by all customers, under the regulated portion of the Texas system, which covers transmission and distribution. The Texas Public Utility Commission said the typical residential ratepayer was charged an extra $6 a month or so. “There are some things about the CREZ lines that can leave a bad taste in your mouth,” Ms. Biedrzycki said. But proponents say the lines have cut electricity costs by more than the $6.
Where the transmission towers, 130 feet tall, march through the farmland, pastureland and deserts of Texas, hardly anybody professes to like them. Leaving Brickhouse, a lunch spot in Panhandle known for chicken fried steak and fried okra, Mark Urbanczyk, who farms 13,000 acres of milo, wheat and corn, paused when he was asked what he thought of the power lines.
“Well, I like the windmills,” Mr. Urbanczyk said. He said he and his father had 17 on their adjoining farms.
In McLean, a few miles to the east, about seven and a half miles of the new lines run through Jeff Haley’s ranch, in the pastures of blue grama and the sideoats grama. After arbitration, Mr. Haley received $45,000 a mile for the right of way, which he said was not enough to compensate him for an ugly intrusion, but an offer he accepted because of the expense and uncertainty of a court appeal.
Concerns like those of Ms. Biedrzycki and Mr. Haley have not prevented the new lines from being completed. Now, supporters are asking if the Texas model can be replicated around the country — an open question, experts say.
One reason is a matter of geography and politics. Texas is one of only three states with borders roughly contiguous with a grid operator, putting its electric system under the control of a single legislature and a single public utilities commission, and it is by far the largest in that category. (The others are New York and California, but each of those is much more tightly tied to its neighbors than is Texas.)
Anywhere else, every state on the route must agree on how the transmission costs will be shared, and a consensus established among the generators and the utilities.
Outside Texas, “the regulatory system is infinitely more complicated,” said James Hoecker, a former chairman of the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission. The commission has been trying to encourage interstate electricity transmission, but has no jurisdiction in Texas. Compared to the rest of the country, he said, the Texas system “looks fairly remarkable.”
At the Austin office of Public Citizen, which puts climate change high on its list of priorities, Tom Smith, a longtime campaigner on energy issues, said that to cut carbon emissions, the country would need “interstate renewable transmission superhighways,” not unlike interstate highways. “That’s one of the things we’re going to have to change federally,” he said.
But the last time Congress considered federal control of electricity transmission, in 2005, state officials persuaded lawmakers that this was a state prerogative.
Mr. Hoecker said that for programs like the one in Texas, “You can’t get those kinds of decisions made anywhere else in the country right now.”
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