The decision had been a clear one: A transmission line would cut through the Hill Country as part of a statewide network to carry West Texas wind power to the population centers of Central Texas, the Public Utility Commission said in an order in May 2009.
The Lower Colorado River Authority, charged with building and operating the line, held more than a dozen Hill Country hearings. A judge reviewed a segment of the route and made recommendations.
But Hill Country landowners, unhappy that the tall transmission towers would obscure their views and fragment wildlife habitat, were organized. They hired lawyers, sent letters to the commission and complained to their lawmakers.
By the time the first segment of the Hill Country line came before the commission in April, the commissioners told the LCRA to go back to the drawing board on proposed routes. And now, with commission Chairman Barry Smitherman signaling his unwillingness to go forward, the commissioners appear to be on the verge of scotching the line altogether.
The about-face points to how political power and wealth have grown in the Hill Country.
It has also put the spotlight on Smitherman, a former investment banker and prosecutor who governs the fate of the line and has had to referee a dispute that mixes property rights, clean energy and money.
Twice in the past three months, Smitherman has asked the state’s grid operator whether segments of a line across the Hill Country were necessary.
He has said that his change in thinking on the Hill Country line came from studying infrastructure maps more closely. But he has also acted in response to letters from lawmakers who want the lines moved.
The latest letter to the grid operator from Smitherman, sent Thursday, came a week after Smitherman received one himself from state Sen. Troy Fraser, R-Horseshoe Bay , that asked for a review of a portion of the Hill Country line.
The line “continues to raise concerns among landowners and communities throughout the Hill Country,” Fraser, recently named the chairman of the natural resources committee and a member of the business and commerce committee, wrote in an Aug. 19 letter to Smitherman.
“I believe we owe it to the people potentially impacted by the (line) to look at all our options in this project.”
In the short term, the utility commission’s likely decision to ax a segment of the line from Gillespie County to Lampasas County has no impact on wind power.
The grid operator, the Electric Reliability Council of Texas, says beefing up existing infrastructure instead could save taxpayers about $100 million.
Smitherman’s most recent letter to the grid operator asks whether the entire Hill Country route can be replaced with existing infrastructure.
But the pressure put on the commission by Hill Country residents shows the continuing power of private property rights in Texas and the relationship between political power and the Hill Country.
The opposition to transmission lines is more organized in the Hill Country than in any other part of the state, Smitherman says.
“The land tends to be more expensive, so someone who moved out there probably spent a lot of money, and their interest is not in making an income off land; it’s not a working farm, but it’s just something they enjoy for the scenery and recreation and animals,” Smitherman said.
Demographic change has translated into political engagement, says Bill Neve, a Burnet County commissioner. The proposed line would have cut across his district.
“Burnet County has totally changed from a good ol’ boy commissioners court system and totally rural attitude and come into the 21st century,” Neve said. “It changed just because people moved in here from Houston, Dallas, Fort Worth and Austin.”
“We did not meet with Gov. (Rick) Perry on this, but we organized ourselves and voiced our opinions, and I think he knew where we stood,” Neve said. “A meeting didn’t have to happen.”
Meanwhile, the Hill Country residents have grown adept at forming allegiances to preserve the character of the area or to protect property rights.
Smitherman asked for the line to be reviewed “presumably because there was enough political heat put on somewhere,” said Mike Dail, chairman of the American Stewards of Liberty, a property rights group leading the charge against wind transmission lines in Mason County.
Smitherman knew little about utility and transmission issues before being appointed to the commission by Perry in 2004; he was promoted to chairman in 2007.
He grew up in blue-collar Highlands, a suburb of Houston, the son of a Harris County road maintenance worker. He graduated summa cum laude from Texas A&M, earned a law degree from the University of Texas and a master’s degree in public administration from Harvard, and eventually became an investment banker and, later, a Harris County assistant district attorney.
Before joining the commission, he wrote a book called “If Jesus Were an Investment Banker (Or Any Other Type of Modern Businessman).” The book, he said, was the answer to a challenge from a member of his former congregation: How can you square observant Christianity with investment banking?
Now he faces what some might regard as a harder question: How can you remain a good Christian in politics?
Smitherman, whose term ends in 2013, says he has remained independent, free of the burdens of elected office.
He says he has never received a call from Perry or his aides on policy matters.
Despite the pushback on the Hill Country line, Smitherman said he expects most of the transmission lines to win approval. Already, nearly a dozen have. Ten more are before the commission or are facing hearings before administrative law judges. Roughly 10 more have yet to be presented.
Broader issues, such as low natural gas prices and lower than expected growth in electricity demand, have done more to take the wind out of the transmission lines.
But Smitherman says the wind lines are necessary as a hedge against the volatility of gas prices and the uncertainty of federal carbon rules, which could increase the cost of electricity from coal-burning plants.
Meanwhile, the transmission lines have their political champions, especially Panhandle and West Texas lawmakers who see the wind farms as a form of economic development. They’re leaning on the lines to take the product to market.
It doesn’t hurt that money is involved. A March report titled “Greasy Transmission” by Texans for Public Justice, a government watchdog group, found that since lawmakers directed the commission to pursue renewable energy transmission lines in 2005, “the political committees and executives of companies linked to the $5 billion in transmission contracts have pumped $4.5 million into state political campaigns.”
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