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Panhandle power project proposed

An 800-mile, $1.5 billion electric transmission project has been proposed for the Texas Panhandle, part of an effort to ship more power – wind, but also coal and natural gas-generated electricity – to the state’s population centers.

A coalition led by Sharyland Utilities LP filed a proposal with state regulators Thursday to build a three-line transmission loop that would weave around a vast stretch of the Panhandle, including Amarillo and Lubbock, and connect to the state’s main power grid.

The sale of wind-generated electricity has been constrained in Texas because of a lack of transmission lines from sparsely populated West Texas and the Panhandle, where the bulk of the state’s wind power is produced. The Panhandle, for instance, is outside the grid run by the Electric Reliability Council of Texas, which delivers about 85 percent of Texas’ overall power usage.

The transmission project will allow power generated in the Panhandle to more easily flow into the ERCOT grid.

Utilities can “take advantage of this new highway to the Panhandle” to secure more power for their customers, said Patrick Wood III, an adviser to Irish wind power concern Airtricity Inc., a member of the coalition. “Our thought is that this project is long overdue.”

Wood is a former chairman of the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission and of the Public Utility Commission of Texas.

The Legislature passed a bill in 2005 requiring that the commission designate zones and accompanying transmission projects to boost the flow of renewable power into more populated areas.

The coalition’s filing came on the deadline day for parties to recommend competitive renewable energy zones to the PUC. The agency is scheduled to design the zones, and the transmission projects needed, by July 5.

Based on rules it adopted last year, the commission can expedite the hearings needed to issue a permit for transmission projects from the zones.

The Sharyland coalition’s filing went beyond recommending zones to include plans for the transmission loop, which it said could be completed by the end of 2010. Besides Airtricity, partners include investment firm Babcock & Brown Renewable Holdings Inc., Occidental Energy Ventures Corp. and chemical giant Celanese Corp.

Sharyland, controlled by the Hunt family of Dallas, is a privately owned transmission and distribution electric utility based in McAllen in the Rio Grande Valley.

The coalition said its loop could connect up to 8,000 megawatts of power into the ERCOT grid. The tentative mix, the companies said, is 4,200 megawatts of wind – enough to power 1 million homes – 2,000 megawatts of gas-fired generation and 1,800 megawatts from coal.

On a high-usage day, Wood said, the loop could put about 5,500 megawatts into the ERCOT grid, or about 10 percent of the amount of power currently used within the grid.

The mix of wind and polluting fuels such as natural gas and especially coal could be “a good template for the future,” Wood said.

“We know we have to build and expand” our power supplies, he said. “But it would be nice to know if every kilowatt-hour of coal and gas were offset by wind,” which generates no emissions.

By Robert Elder
American-Statesman Staff


16 February 2007