Fighting the Power Lines to Protect Hill Country Vistas

This is the second part in a three-part series examining Texas' $5 billion build-out of transmission lines to support wind power, which is encountering increasing opposition. The first part in this series looked at the rollout of the lines around the state.

As Robert Weatherford's Ford Expedition climbs and dips through the Hill Country, over creeks beds and past oak-covered slopes, he explains the sensitivities of the residents who populate this rugged yet placid area of Central Texas. "These are the kind of views people are willing to pay a little bit more for," he says.

Weatherford and others in this scenic slice of the state fear that those views — not to mention property values — are threatened by gigantic power lines needed for the transmission of wind power. The Lower Colorado River Authority, or LCRA, wants to build two high-voltage lines through the Hill Country as part of a $5 billion project to carry electricity from West Texas windmills to Central and East Texas homes and businesses.

Landowners from all parts of Texas are fighting the power lines. But the loudest howls have come from the Hill Country, which residents and visitors alike cherish for its unspoiled vistas. The anti-power line crowd has been on a roll: In April, the state's Public Utility Commission, or PUC, which oversees the transmission build-out, rejected the route proposals for one of the LCRA's lines, which would have run from the Fredericksburg area to Lampasas County — the first such rejection issued by the commission. Regulators are also studying alternatives to the second Hill Country line the utility plans to build.

Meanwhile, "the meters on the attorneys are running," says Weatherford, a retiree who serves as the volunteer president of Save Our Scenic Hill Country Environment, a group that formed to protest the development of both transmission lines and wind farms in the area.

 

Hill Country loyalists — some of whom have lived on their land for generations — employ every available argument to keep the transmission lines at bay. Besides the simple beauty of the hillsides, they cite endangered bird species, like the golden-cheeked warbler or the black-capped vireo; unique landforms, such as the Llano Uplift; the historic Pinta trail used by Indians and pioneers; a large bat colony; and much more. 

County against county

Neighbors are pulling together, says Ron Crocker, who has land in Mason County that lies just down the road from one of the proposed routes, and who says he has no wish to "set under a power line that's humming like a bunch of buzzards." But the fight also pits county against county, as municipalities battle to keep the LCRA from choosing a route through their particular patch. Weatherford, a man with keen blue eyes and a determined mien, moved to the Hill Country in 2002 after 32 years in Houston, looking forward, he says, to an escape from freeways. While the lines will not go through his land, he worries about seeing wires and poles — far bigger than most existing lines in Hill Country — sprouting along scenic roads. He doesn't want them anywhere in the Hill Country.

The backlash has "stunned" LCRA, says its spokesman, Robert Cullick, who notes that the utility helped bring electricity to Hill Country many decades ago, helping it grow out of its status as "little Appalachia." Even so, Cullick acknowledges, "there's no perfect line" — because everything will go through a scenic area or one of special environmental importance.

The LCRA's history with wind likewise goes way back: It went out on a limb and bought power from Texas' first major wind farm, which was built in 1995 in Culberson County. (The LCRA still gets power from that wind farm, some of which it sells to the city of Austin.) Nowadays, the utility focuses on trying to build $700 million worth of wind transmission lines in Central Texas. But it appears to have gotten the most difficult piece of the Texas project, known as CREZ, for Competitive Renewable Energy Zones.

All but one of the six new lines planned by the LCRA are in jeopardy. Two are in the Hill Country. The project rejected by the PUC would have run from a power station in Lampasas County to Gillespie County. Another line — from a not-yet-built substation in Schleicher County called McCamey D to Kendall County and on to Gillespie County — is currently under consideration; the utility filed its application to build the line in July, and the PUC has 181 days to approve it. Three other prospective new lines, in the Odessa area, could be taken away from the LCRA, because the city of Garland is trying to seize control of the lines and build them itself with the help of another transmission company. The only new LCRA line that has already gotten permission from regulators to start building lies on the edge of the Hill Country and will run from Twin Buttes to McCamey D. 

In building all of its lines, the LCRA must heed guidelines aimed at minimizing the impact to landowners. As much as possible, routes are supposed to go along existing rights-of-way, whether they are roads or existing transmission lines. Specifically for the Hill Country, the PUC has also been willing to consider using a different kind of transmission tower — rather than a hulking, metallic lattice tower, more slender but expensive monopoles. Putting wires underground, the ideal solution in some respects, would be extremely expensive.

The best option?

 

But for Hill Country protectors, the best option of all is no lines — and they question the need for building both lines the LCRA is prepping. They challenge whether wind power has grown fast enough to justify the need for all the lines the state has planned. After all, the growth of wind power nationally has been slower this year than in 2008, when the PUC originally approved them. The sharp drop in natural gas prices — which pushes wind power prices lower, too — has made wind project tougher to finance. T. Boone Pickens, the billionaire oilman, recently scrapped plans to build the world's largest wind farm near Pampa.

A related question is whether the power could travel in other ways. Last month, the Electric Reliability Council of Texas, the state grid operator commonly called ERCOT, outlined alternatives to the line from Gillespie to Newton, which got rejected in April by the PUC (the LCRA can still file another application proposing new routes, though its development work on the line is presently on hold). Upgrading a few existing lines, ERCOT found, would achieve the effectiveness of the proposed CREZ line — and at a cost of just $39 million, compared with an estimated $136 million.

For the other line — the long segment from Schleicher to Kendall to Gillespie — an alternative could also be at hand. Last year, NextEra Energy Resources, a major renewable energy developer based in Florida, opened a 214-mile private transmission line through the Hill Country dubbed the "Texas Clean Energy Express." The line connects an enormous wind farm in Taylor and Nolan Counties, operated by the company, to a substation in Kendall County.

A private line differs from a public line in key ways. Unlike utilities going through the CREZ process, NextEra did not have power of eminent domain. Nor can the company recoup its expenditures through add-ons to utility bills. NextEra quietly planned and built it in 18 months — a lot faster than is possible through the CREZ process — by paying large, undisclosed sums to landowners. So it is likely that companies building private lines spend more on land but have the advantage of less regulatory hassle.

State Sen. Troy Fraser, R-Horseshoe Bay — who applauded the PUC's effort to find alternatives to the other LCRA line — has asked commissioners to explore the private-line option. The PUC, in turn, asked ERCOT to conduct a study. In a filing last month to the commission, NextEra said it might be willing to bring the line into the Texas transmission planning process, allowing other companies to use it.

It's unclear whether NextEra would come into a CREZ process, and at what cost. The line would also likely need to be upgraded. NextEra says that the line has a capacity of 1,000 megawatts, and the two wind farms that it serves have a combined capacity of 850 megawatts. ERCOT does not know yet when its study will be complete. Meanwhile, friends of the Hill County will keep fending off the lines, and the lawyers' meters will keep ticking.

Tomorrow: Power From the Panhandle

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