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Battle Lines: Panhandle Power

While West Texas has become the nation's wind-power hub, the Panhandle's ferocious winds go largely untapped. That could change with a slew of proposed transmission line projects that could, in turn, enable forests of turbines — if landowners can be soothed. Part three of a three-part series.

New turbines tower over an old windmill at the Whirlwind wind
farm, near Floydada

This is the final 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 looked at the rollout of the lines around the state; the second part looked at the fight in the Hill Country.

On a wind map of the United States, the pinks and purples — indicating average speeds of 17 to 20 miles per hour at nearly the height of modern wind-power turbines — carve a great, meandering swath through the Great Plains. Some of the deepest hues reside in the Texas Panhandle, where howling gales roar through desolate, treeless plains several thousand feet above sea level.

But while West Texas produces more wind power than any region in the nation, the Panhandle's ferocious winds go largely untapped. Meanwhile, areas with lesser winds — notably near Sweetwater, just below the Panhandle — have sprouted forests of turbines, some twice as tall as the Statue of Liberty.

The Panhandle's challenge is its remoteness. Few transmission lines exist to carry power to big cities that need it. (A similar problem plagued wildcatters in the 1920s, when oil was discovered in the Panhandle and got excavated faster than pipelines or railroads could be built.) Much of the Panhandle isn't even on Texas' electric grid, called the Electric Reliability Council of Texas, or ERCOT; instead, it's part of a grid called the Eastern Interconnection, which runs all the way to Maine. Transmission lines through the Panhandle have to date been the responsibility of a Little Rock-based nonprofit called the Southwest Power Pool, one of a small number of organizations around the country tasked with ensuring reliable power, adequate transmission and competitive wholesale electricity prices.

A number of potential solutions are at hand. Two sets of lines from the Texas transmission planning process, called CREZ (short for Competitive Renewable Energy Zones), would reach further than ever into the Panhandle. The Southwest Power Pool also plans lines; one would go from Woodward, Okla., to Hitchland, at the Panhandle's northern tip, and another would run 250 miles from Woodward to Hale County, well south of Amarillo. Transmission companies would bear the costs and may pass them on to customers in the Power Pool's multi-state area.

"It's as simple as, 'Hey, we need more wires to build this power,'" says Michael Skelly, an old hand in the Texas wind-power business who made an unsuccessful run for Congress against U.S. Rep. John Culberson, R-Houston, two years ago. His company, Houston-based Clean Line Energy, hopes to build an approximately 800-mile, $3.5 billion line that will run from Oklahoma all the way to Memphis, where the huge market served by the Tennessee Valley Authority begins. In June, Clean Line Energy filed to become an Oklahoma utility, a necessary regulatory step to obtain powers of eminent domain. Clean Line may build wires into the Texas Panhandle, Skelly says, or allow wind farm operators to build the lines themselves and link into his Oklahoma project.

Another project — Tres Amigas, the plan to link the nation's east, west and Texas grids in eastern New Mexico — could send Panhandle wind power as far afield as California, which is perpetually hungry for green power. (That prospect that does not please the chairman of the Public Utility Commission, Barry Smitherman, who fears it could eat into returns on Texas' transmission line investments).

That's a lot of projects, even for the windy Panhandle. "Not all of them are 100 percent sure going to happen," says Kenneth Starcher, assistant director of the Alternative Energy Institute at West Texas A&M University in the Panhandle town of Canyon, which has been testing wind turbines since the 1970s. "But a lot of them have good potential" if financing can be worked out, he says.

Planting wind farms

The wiring projects would enable many wind farm plans also currently in development. RES Americas, a developer that already has a Panhandle wind farm called Whirlwind, perched on the edge of the Caprock near Floydada, has already leased land for more farms in the Panhandle. "We're just waiting for CREZ lines to get done," says Shalini Ramanathan, RES Americas' vice president of development for the region.

But the wait for lines has already caused some would-be wind farmers to pull out — most notably billionaire oilman T. Boone Pickens, who withdrew his plans to put the "world's largest wind farm" in the Pampa area after natural gas prices, which are linked to wind power prices, fell dramatically in the recent years.

Nonetheless, ERCOT filings show a healthy queue of prospective projects, many of them slated for three or four years hence. Several farms are proposed for Briscoe County, including one from an undisclosed developer at a whopping 2,940 megawatts of capacity planned for January 2013. That's smaller than Pickens' now-scrapped 4,000-megawatt project, but it's four times the size of the largest wind farm in the world, near Roscoe, just west of Abilene — and 18 times the size of the largest Panhandle harvester, the 161-megawatt Wildorado wind farm, 25 miles west of Amarillo.

More than 2,000 megawatts of new wind are planned for Gray County, where Woody Guthrie sheltered himself in the Dust Bowl (even when it wasn't storming, his guitar strings would "roar around in the wind"). The first wind farm in Texas, a tiny assemblage of turbines, was erected near Pampa in 1981 by Michael Osborne, now an Austin Energy official, who grew up in the area.

Mounting opposition

But in the Panhandle, just as in the Hill Country and elsewhere around the state, the transmission lines face formidable opposition stemming from concerns that the natural landscape will be blighted. A number of landowners in the region have filed objections to the lines — notably a coalition called Protect North Palo Duro Canyon, which has sprung up to fight proposed routes that would cut through private land just north of the state park of the same name.

"They're not just trying to destroy Palo Duro Canyon. They're trying to destroy the whole state of Texas," says Dan Rogers, whose wife, Susan, helped organize the group. "I just get mad when I start thinking about what's going on."

Together with two of her brothers, Susan Rogers owns a 1,800-acre piece of land, which includes some of the canyon and is near but not adjacent to the state park; it has been in their family for a century, she says, and has no houses or other developments on it, save for an old log cabin. Five of the 12 possible routes from Hereford to White Deer would go through this land, she says — though at the moment the "priority route" would not — and people driving to the state park on State Highway 217 would pass under the lines.

A key step to enable the CREZ lines to be built occurred last November, when the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission — which has jurisdiction everywhere but Texas — waived the right to regulate power lines in Southwest Power Pool territory that feed into ERCOT. The lines will not provide electricity to people who live in Southwest Power Pool areas; they will only collect power from wind projects and ferry it south.

Nonetheless, Susan Rogers argues that the proposed lines, because they are intended for ERCOT but in territory covered by the Southwest Power Pool and the Eastern Interconnection grid, constitute a "violation of property rights of people in the Southwest Power Pool." If the route is put through her land, she says, she would probably force the utility to take it through eminent domain rather than settle beforehand.

Asked how much time she spends fending off the power lines, she broke down in tears. "I have a 2-year-old, and this has taken — oh my gosh — so much of the precious time," she said, her voice trailing off.

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