SWEETWATER – Enormous transmission towers stand beside a West Texas country road, waiting for electric wires to be strung through them. Nearby, the task of threading wires through the steel towers is already under way, as men in hardhats shift equipment into position.
“We’re going to work 12 hours a day through Thanksgiving,” said Pat Hogan, a consultant with McCurley Enterprises, a company helping with the construction. The only real break comes around mid-afternoon on Sundays when, he said, “you can get your clothes cleaned or go to the grocery store.”
The rush to build transmission lines is part of Texas’ efforts to promote wind power, which provides 8 percent of the state grid’s electricity. Across the state, thousands of miles of wires are being strung at a cost that has soared to an estimated $6.8 billion. The main purpose is to ferry wind energy from remote areas like Sweetwater – already home to many big wind farms – to major cities like Dallas-Fort Worth. Texas leads the nation in wind production, and the lines are intended to nearly double the state’s wind capacity.
The build-out, which Texans will pay for in future electric bill increases projected at about $5 a month per customer for years, has been contentious. Some Texas landowners have fought to prevent the lines from crossing their property, even though they receive a one-time payment for hosting them.
Travis Besier, the manager of transmission right-of-way for Oncor, a Dallas-based utility overseeing construction of the largest chunk of lines (including the Sweetwater segments), said that payments for an easement can range from around $3,000 to $10,000 or more per acre depending on factors like whether the property is close to a large city. In some cases, Mr. Besier said, Oncor has needed eminent domain proceedings, in which the utility can take the land if negotiations with the landowner fail.
For businesses in Sweetwater, which normally cater to energy-company workers and tourists attending the town’s famed springtime Rattlesnake Roundup, the construction has brought a boom. One recent morning at Big Boy’s Bar-B-Que in Sweetwater began with Oncor ordering $265 worth of sandwiches, according to Gaylan Marth, the restaurant’s owner.
“What a way to start off!” Mr. Marth said.
Christy Silva, general manager of the Best Western hotel in Sweetwater, said that her business has risen by about 35 percent because of the transmission work – although she is aware that at some point the construction will end and the workers will leave.
All lines are supposed to be completed by the end of 2013. Work is going smoothly, builders say, though there are occasional hitches. Workers must always beware of rattlesnakes and bad weather, including high winds and lightning.
Andy Weaver, co-owner of Weaver Construction Texas, a company doing grading work for Oncor, said that due to the drought and tighter water restrictions, he had trouble getting enough water (necessary for processing the material) while preparing a substation site near Brownwood. “You couldn’t find a driller in Texas to drill you a water well,” Mr. Weaver said. He was eventually able to buy water from ranchers and farmers with wells.
Wind developers, for their part, are eagerly awaiting the completion of the lines, which should spur more development in West Texas, including the area around Sweetwater, where currently some turbines must stop spinning at windy times because there are not enough wires to carry out the power. The Panhandle, the windiest region in the state, albeit one with relatively few turbines due to its remoteness, is also poised for more development.
But Andy Bowman, president of Pioneer Green Energy, a renewable energy developer, said that much near-term wind activity is focused on South Texas – where the state has not ordered construction of new transmission lines for wind.
Austin Energy, for example, recently announced plans to buy coastal wind power for a relatively low price. (Coastal winds tend to be slower but better matched to electricity usage patterns than West Texas winds.)
“It’s an interesting turn of events that we’re seeing wind being competitive on the market again,” even before the lines get built, Mr. Bowman said.
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