A controversial power line proposed to cross the Hill Country to transmit wind power from West Texas may not have to get built after all, according to a letter Tuesday from the agency operating the state’s electricity grid.
The line, which would run from the Fredericksburg area to Lampasas County, has faced opposition from Hill Country property owners who worried that the lines would ruin views and fragment animal habitat.
It is part of a $5 billion transmission line project endorsed by the Legislature to build highways of cable to transport renewable energy from far-away, remote parts of Texas to the population centers in the central part of the state.
Scrapping the line would result in a 1 percent loss in wind energy every year under the renewable energy plan, according to the letter by Trip Doggett, CEO of the Electric Reliability Council of Texas, which operates the state’s electricity grid, to Barry Smitherman, chairman of the Public Utility Commission, which has final say over the trajectory of the transmission lines.
To make up that loss and avoid congestion on the lines, ERCOT engineers said existing transmission lines could be improved at a cost of $39 million. That figure is far less than the $136 million estimated to build the line from the Fredericksburg area to Lampasas County.
But, the letter warned, “as loads grow in the Hill Country and nearby areas, the (Fredericksburg to Lampasas County) circuit would provide more system operational flexibility and greater support for long-term system reliability.
“The potential savings noted in this reassessment are a direct result of foregoing potential long-range system benefits for a near-term, less-expensive solution.”
ERCOT’s letter Tuesday was a response to a query by Smitherman in early June about whether the Fredericksburg-to-Lampasas route was necessary. The PUC is set to take up the fate of the line Thursday.
Robert Cullick, a spokesman for the Lower Colorado River Authority, which won the right to build, own and operate the line, said that if the PUC decides to upgrade existing lines, the LCRA “clearly stands ready to provide that infrastructure.”
The issue of the route of the transmission lines has shaped up as a fierce one, calling to mind some of the Hill Country endangered species and property rights battles that heated up in the 1990s.
“Clearly, if there’s the ability to move the wind power another way that’s much less expensive, and much less destructive of property and habitat, that’s a very preferable choice,” said Jim Boyle, an attorney who represents about two dozen landowners whose properties might have been affected by a line.
Opponents of the lines hope the ERCOT letter opens up the way to a re-evaluation of other segments that stretch farther west through the Hill Country, said Robert Weatherford, president of Save Our Scenic Hill Country Environment, which counts more than 500 members.
Travis County lawmakers have said that the overall, statewide goal of the transmission project – to diversify the state’s energy portfolio with clean energy – will be completed even if the PUC appeared reluctant to approve the Hill Country line.
The project will “preserve the prosperity of the state for the future,” state Sen. Kirk Watson, D-Austin, said at a news conference Monday about a new study linking job creation and renewable energy. “Something that big is going to run into a hurdle or two.”
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