December 9, 2010

Wind battle blows over canyon

By DANIEL GILBERT, The Wall Street Journal, 8 December 2010

A Texas commission won’t allow a transmission line to cross the second-largest canyon in the U.S., a victory for preservationists that still raises thorny environmental and cost issues.

Skirting the majestic Palo Duro Canyon means the line delivering wind power from the Texas Panhandle will be longer and thus costlier for consumer ratepayers. And it will still cut across land that is home to fragile wildlife populations, including bald eagles.

Such conflicts over the routing of new transmission lines are likely to intensify nationwide as wind power evolves from a niche to a significant portion of the energy portfolio.

“The nation is about to confront a major infrastructure-transmission discussion,” said Michael Webber, an engineering professor at the University of Texas at Austin. “And if it’s hard in Texas, where we’re good at it and we have experience and we’ve figured out funding models, what’s it going to be like in the nation? It might be a very bruising fight.”

Texas operates its own electric grid and doesn’t face the difficulty of trying to site transmission lines across state lines. It has little federal land, which spares utilities that are building infrastructure an additional layer of bureaucracy.

The state legislature has already aggressively capitalized on the windswept Panhandle, seeking to add more than 18,000 megawatts onto the grid that covers 85% of the state. And Texas has a long history of making the compromises that come with energy generation, including marred vistas, in the name of jobs and economic development.

Despite these advantages, plans to install new West Texas transmission lines for wind energy have sparked fierce opposition from a combination of landowners, developers and environmentalists.

In the case decided Wednesday by the Texas Public Utility Commission, Sharyland Utilities LP, privately owned by Hunter L. Hunt and family members, had proposed options that fell into four geographically distinct routes.

Two routes would run through the Palo Duro Canyon—a 120-mile formation of craggy, chiseled beauty, part of which is a state park. Two other routes would run north of the canyon, whose length is only surpassed by the Grand Canyon.

An administrative law judge who reviewed the potential paths last month wrote, “There is no solution that lacks severe drawbacks.”

Susan Rogers, a non-practicing lawyer in Amarillo, belongs to a family that owns 1,800 acres in Palo Duro Canyon, where she says she cherishes watching bald eagles and sheep that climb the canyon walls. When she received notice of Sharyland’s plans in August 2009, she flung herself into the fray.

Ms. Rogers, 42 years old, taught herself computer programming to build a website for her group, called “Protect North Palo Duro Canyon,” and penned an op-ed article for her local newspaper. The family retained a lawyer, and Ms. Rogers estimates family members have racked up $150,000 of legal fees.

The campaign by the Rogers family and others bore fruit. The administrative law judge deemed the two geographic routes that traversed the canyon as “the least acceptable,” writing that “it is beyond dispute that the canyon is considered an iconic feature of the Texas landscape.”

The judge and the utility commission endorsed the northernmost route, the first choice of Sharyland. It runs through the Canadian River Basin, and is the second-longest and most expensive option: Its estimated price tag of $190.5 million is nearly $18 million more than the shorter route proposed by the utility commission’s legal staff, which also skirts Palo Duro Canyon.

“While these decisions are difficult, we believe that given all of the factors involved, this is the best alternative for stakeholders,” a spokeswoman for Sharyland said in a statement.

Mark Bivins, who serves on the Texas Parks and Wildlife Commission, disagrees. “The northern route in my mind drastically impedes the opportunity for people to get into the Canadian River Basin and enjoy the now un-trespassed property that these transmission lines would go across,” he told utility-commission members at a hearing in Austin last week.

But Tom Simons, the top executive in rural Deaf Smith County, which is included in the approved route, wasn’t unhappy. He said there were investors interested in building wind farms in his county, which he brags has the best wind speeds in Texas.

The double-circuit lattice towers might be unsightly, Mr. Simons acknowledged, but they lack the olfactory drawbacks of the county’s feedlots and 12 big dairy farms. “I just think it’s a great deal for us, tax-wise, job-wise and otherwise,” Mr. Simons said.

As for the Palo Duro Canyon, it might yet be pierced by a transmission line. Sharyland filed an application last month to build another line. All the alternative routes would cross the canyon, though not the state park, the company said.

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