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TribBlog: Happy Day for the Hill Country

The Public Utility Commission will cancel plans to build one controversial wind-power transmission line, as well as a segment of a second — to Hill Country landowners' undoubted relief.

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To Hill Country landowners' undoubted relief, the Public Utility Commission will cancel plans to build one controversial wind-power transmission line, as well as a portion of a second.

At a public meeting today, the three commissioners voted to go with a "lower-cost" alternative: upgrading substations and wires that already exist in the region.

The proposed high-voltage lines had come under fire from Hill Country landowners who sought to preserve the rugged beauty of their area. Cognizant of the concerns, the commission asked the state grid operator earlier this year to investigate alternatives. Upgrading existing infrastructure, the grid operator reported, would cost substantially less (about $143 million less for the two line segments combined) while accomplishing largely the same purpose.

"This is a unique set of circumstances," said Barry Smitherman, the commission chairman, presumably trying to head off any outcry for alternatives among landowners elsewhere in the state who are also desperately trying to duck Texas's $5 billion transmission build-out to aid wind power. The Hill Country has existing infrastructure to fall back on, Smitherman explained, whereas there is "zero" or "minimal" infrastructure along many lines. 

The commissioners also emphasized that someday, another big transmission line may need to be built near one of the routes as demand for electricity grows.

"Long term, there may very well be a need for a line," said Commissioner Kenneth Anderson.

One long segment of a Hill Country line is still planned, however, though the precise route has not yet been determined. It will run for at least 130 miles between a yet-to-be-built substation called McCamey D in Schleicher County, to the Kendall substation near Comfort. The grid operator has found "no effective alternatives" to this line.

A formal order from today's proceedings will be issued in a few weeks; today the commissioners approved a lengthy "stipulation" that a number of the affected parties had agreed to. (That document can be found here.)

Smitherman, who repeatedly expressed frustration with coverage of the transmission line process in the Hill Country news media, showed anger toward the end of today's proceedings. He summoned Robert Weatherford, the president of Save Our Scenic Hill Country, a group trying to prevent the transmission lines from coming through the region, for a few minutes of grilling.

Smitherman read back to Weatherford the following passage from a September article in the Fredericksburg Standard Radio Post:

“It appears that PUC Commissioners are dismissing the Hill Country as well as specific requests made by a large number of landowners, the PUC staff, local officials, state representatives and organizations,” Save Our Scenic Hill Country Environment (SOSHCE) President Robert Weatherford said yesterday.

“Their apparent opposition to support a thorough reevaluation of the alternatives to M-K-G and their delay in approving a much lower-cost alternative to the Gillespie-to-Newton line demonstrate a total disregard for the residents and others who appreciate the uniqueness of this area,” he said.

"I find this statement to be inflammatory and unnecessary," Smitherman said, adding, "This process is difficult enough as it is without people like you [stirring the pot]."

Weatherford responded that while this was an accurate representation of his view at the time, he appreciated the commission's current action.

"This is a very difficult process" for everyone, Weatherford said.

Smitherman did not seem mollified.

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