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State supports $4.9 billion wind power plan
Texas power grid expansion would aid renewable projects.

By Claudia Grisales
Friday, July 18, 2008

Big wind in Texas is getting even bigger.

State officials on Thursday gave preliminary approval to a $4.9 billion wind power project that will add a massive system of transmission lines to help move electricity generated along the windy patches of West Texas to power-hungry metropolitan areas such as Austin.

If the plan wins final approval, it would be the country's largest investment in clean and renewable power.

"What my mission is, it is to get this wind, that has the best capacity factor in the state, down to our citizens," said Barry Smitherman, chairman of the Public Utility Commission, shortly before voting for the plan.

The decision, approved on a 2-1 vote, triggers continued plans for ramping up in the state's power grid system, adding more than 2,000 miles of heavy-duty transmission lines from West Texas near the town of McCamey and the Panhandle to the major population hubs of Austin, Dallas-Fort Worth, Houston and elsewhere.

The $4.9 billion plan was favored in Central Texas, drawing support from Austin Energy and the Lower Colorado River Authority. It would bring the state's total wind transmission capacity to 18,456 megawatts (one megawatt can power 500 or more homes).

"It was prudent to take this big step, but leave bigger steps for the future," said Mark Dreyfus, director of regulatory and government affairs for Austin Energy. "We're pretty pleased because it will help us meet our renewable goals."

The plan approved Thursday, dubbed "Scenario 2", was vying against four other proposals ranging in price tags of $3 billion to $6.4 billion.

Austin Energy hopes to draw 30 percent of its power from renewable sources by 2020. Scenario 2 showed the most promise in relieving congestion moving wind-generated electricity from the McCamey region to Central Texas, Dreyfus said.

Austin Energy's share of the plan's costs is estimated at $197 million, which would be passed on to ratepayers in their base rates over a period of about 30 years.

"We thought Scenario 2 was the best because, although it didn't provide the most wind power, it did provide the most wind power on a cost-effective basis," said Lower Colorado River Authority spokesman Robert Cullick.

Already, Texas has won bragging rights as the country's leading producer of wind power, with the capability to provide the renewable-generated electricity for 1 million homes. For the third year in a row, the state posted the largest increase in the amount of wind capacity added in 2007 with a 57 percent increase, or 1,618 megawatts.

By year's end, the state will be poised to reach 10,000 megawatts of wind power, and a major upgrade will make the state a leader in moving the renewable power as well.

"We will add more wind than the 14 states following Texas combined," said PUC Commissioner Paul Hudson. "I think that's a very extraordinary achievement. Some think we haven't gone far enough; some think we've pushed too far."

Smitherman and Hudson both voted for the project, with commissioner Julie Parsley dissenting. Parsley said she was concerned that further analysis was needed to ensure reliability and to be certain other forms of power would not be negatively affected by the project. "I think we could have taken a more measured approach," she said.

The plan wouldn't be in place for several years, but it could result in a $4 increase on Texas consumers' monthly bills, according to the PUC.

cgrisales @ statesman.com; 912-5933

Additional material from The Associated Press.

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