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Panhandle to Austin: Plug us in

Apr 25, 2008 - Kevin Welch - Amarillo Globe-News - McClatchy-Tribune Regional News

About 300 people attended a committee meeting Thursday where the message to Austin was to plug the Panhandle in.

They heard testimony presented to the Texas House Regulated Industries Committee at the Region 16 Service Center that was intended to influence the Public Utilities Commission.

The PUC is in the last stages of defining the zones where wind development would be best, what transmission lines are needed and who will build them.

"Some of the economic impact information has not been made part of the record," said Rep. David Swinford, R-Dumas. "We wanted the testimony today to fill in the gaps; also to show the quality of the resource we have."

Oldham County Judge Don Allred testified about the economic change the Wildorado Wind Ranch brought to his county.

"That will increase our tax base some $250 million," he said. "It's what can keep us up economically with the rest of the state." Gray County Judge Richard Peet said wind energy is a "new frontier" with staying power.

"It's not like oil and gas," he said. "That will go away."

However, the lack of connection to the state's population centers is blocking progress.

"There's no ground being broken because there's no transmission lines," Peet said.

The lines are needed for the prime wind locations that cover parts of West Texas from the Panhandle to McCamey, Sweetwater and Abilene for two reasons.

First, the Panhandle is not wired into the grid powering the rest of the state. Second, the existing system near Sweetwater, where most of the state's wind farms are located, is connected to the state grid but is becoming overloaded.

When that happens, the Electric Reliability Council of Texas forces some energy producers to cut back. The lowest cost electricity gets to continue flowing.

"We have seen some concern from traditional generators because they can't compete," said Bill Bojorquez, vice president of ERCOT.

Costs to build transmission lines from West Texas to metropolitan areas range from $2.95 billion to $6.38 billion, says a recent study by ERCOT.

In testimony Thursday, ERCOT President and CEO Bob Kahn said fuel cost savings, perhaps starting at more than $1 billion per year, would help pay off the new transmission system quickly.

While wind energy would save ERCOT ratepayers, who would first pay to build the transmission system, there are other factors to look at when measuring costs versus benefits, said John Harvey, who testified representing John Deere Wind Energy. He cited no air pollution, no water usage and jobs that pay well as some of wind's benefits.