New 60-mile electricity transmission line planned for Brewster and Presidio Counties

by John Waters, Publisher

Late last month, officials from the Rio Grande Electric Cooperative (RGEC) and the Lower Colorado River Authority (LCRA) announced plans for a new 69-kilovolt electric transmission line to run approximately sixty miles from American Electric Power’s transmission line, between Marfa and Presidio, to a new substation planned for a location near Bee Mountain in Terlingua. The proposed project would offer south Brewster County residents greater reliability of electric service by having a power substation far closer to local consumers than the existing Panther Junction substation.

During a presentation to Brewster County Commissioner’s Court, held on March 29 in Study Butte, Larry Powell of the Rio Grande Electric Cooperative, and Allan Kunze of the Lower Colorado River Authority, briefed the court and the 40 citizens in attendance on the $30 plus million project. Powell said the project was “badly needed.”

For years, residents in south Brewster County have endured power fluctuations and power outages which last for hours to, in many instances, several days. The power to Big Bend National Park, Terlingua and Lajitas is a radial power line, meaning it comes from one direction and terminates at one source without completing a loop. When that single power line is cut everything goes down.

Rio Grande Electric Cooperative has the largest service area of any electric cooperative in the contiguous United States, covering approximately 35,000 square miles, has served the region for decades. The LCRA Provides power, manages the lower Colorado River Basin, and constructs and operates transmission lines throughout the state. RGEC is proposing to build the substation, and the LCRA, the transmission line.

During Commissioners Court, Kunze outlined the five-year projected timeline to construct the transmission line and substation and its numerous phases: 1) Documenting Need (completing this now); 2) Study Alternatives (starting this stage); 3) Electric Reliability Council of Texas (ERCOT) review and board endorsement; 4) Public Utilities Commission (PUC) approval; 5) Design; 6) Land Easement Acquisition of land 80-100 feet wide for the transmission line; 7) Energize.

In an email, Kunze offered. “I do want to emphasize that this potential project is in the early justification and thinking or planning stage. I mentioned some concepts, costs, heights of poles, types of poles, starting and end points, but those are a totally rough order of magnitude and conceptual, only. There is a lot of up-front process to go through to even justify this potential project, before we get into approvals, design, locations, routes, size, heights, impacts, costs, and many other aspects.”

Terry Hadley of the Texas Public Utilities Commission elaborated that when a utility (in this case, the LCRA) files a rate case with the commission, it determines those rates, and the costs of transmission line construction are spread out and absorbed by all the customers within the Electric Reliability Council of Texas.

With LCRA building and owning the transmission line, the $30 million construction cost will be distributed among the millions of customers within the ERCOT grid rather than the approximately 6,300 Rio Grande Electric customers.

Commissioner Hugh Garrett asked Powell and Kunze if there was anything the county could do to expedite the projected five years needed, adding, with a bit of frustration, “I thought we were further down the road.” Kunze said the Public Utilities Commission process alone could take a year.

Rio Grande Electric CEO Dan Laws told the Gazette during an interview after the meeting that there are three proposed routes being considered for the transmission line, all of which would all terminate at the proposed substation near Bee Mountain in Brewster County: one route would connect to the AEP transmission line next to RGEC’s Cienega Substation located about 17 miles south of Marfa; one would be further south to the AEP line near Shafter; and the last option would be even further south, connecting to the AEP line between Shafter and Presidio.

Laws said both the transmission line and the substation would be will be state-of-the-art, with projected costs of at least $30 million for the line and the substation at $1.8 million, minimally.

The project is being undertaken to provide reliability to existing customers, said Laws, and is not for projected increases in electricity consumption. Laws added, “I had to make sense of this to my board and the LCRA board and will need to do so in the fall to ERCOT [Electric Reliability Council of Texas].

While the proposed transmission line and substation is not a loop, the new facilities will greatly increase reliability for customers, said Laws.

Having a new South County substation energized by a new transmission line will eliminate power fluctuations during clear weather, said Laws: “The squirrely anomalies will go away.”

RGEC has a ten-acre tract under contract for purchase near Bee Mountain that will serve as the future home of the substation. The sellers are Barbara Trammell and Carolyn Small of Terlingua.

Laws said the cooperative is in discussions with Brewster County to pave less than a half-mile of dirt road to the site, adding, “It would be a shame not to get to a state-of-the-art station, due to mud.” Ideally the substation will include a yard at which to store spare parts, and include an on-site digger truck and a bucket truck that will contribute to greatly-reduced response times to power interruptions in the future.

After the presentation during commissioners court, Brewster County Judge Eleazar Cano said, “This is not a done deal.”

The tax benefits to both counties are significant. According to Kunze, the transmission line would generate at least $5,000 per-mile, per year of property tax revenue. By that estimate, Brewster and Presidio counties would reap approximately $300,000 annually in ad valorem property tax.

At current Brewster County tax rates, the substation, valued at a minimum of $1.8 million, would generate $34,200 in property tax, of which $18,000 would go to the Terlingua Common School District.

The proposal to build a transmission line from south Brewster County to central Presidio County is not new. According to documents obtained by the Gazette, as early as October 2003, LCRA documents show an early proposal to upgrade American Electric Power’s line from Marfa to Presidio which also included plans to construct a 70-mile transmission line to Lajitas, creating a loop. [“To support this resort [Lajitas] long term, RGEC is planning to construct a new 795 ACR 69 kV transmission line approximately 70-miles in length into the Lajitas area from a tap point south of the Cienega substation.”]

LCRA documents from 2003 also state the entire project, including the Marfa to Presidio line, was postponed when “recent changes to the projected developments in the Lajitas area caused the need for this project to be reevaluated.”

In 2012, the transmission line between Marfa and Presidio was upgraded to 69-kilovolt. Upgrading that line paved the way for a new transmission line from south Brewster County to tap in.

Lastly, Laws said he will be turning 63 next month, and usual retirement age at the cooperative is 65, noting, “I’m excited to see this underway. And I would really like to see this done.”

03_RGEC-Larry-Powell

During a presentation to Brewster County Commissioner’s Court on March 29 held in  Study Butte/Terlingua, Larry Powell of the Rio Grande Electric Cooperative, briefed the court and the 40 citizens in attendance on the proposed $30 plus million project which would greatly improve electrical service reliability to south Brewster County residents.  (John Waters, photo)

04_Cienega-substation

The Rio Grande Electric Cienega Substation in Presidio County, one of three that Rio Grande Electric and the Lower Colorado River Authority are considering as a connection point between American Electric Power’s (AEP) transmission line and a proposed sixty-mile 69-kilovolt transmission line through Presidio County and Brewster County to a proposed substation near Bee Mountain in south Brewster County. (Photo courtesy of Rio Grande Electric Cooperative)

KEY AGENCIES involved in the proposed electrical line

American Electric Power (AEP), an investor-owned utility operating throughout the United States, owns the transmission line between Marfa and Presidio that the proposed Brewster County-Presidio County transmission line will tap into. In 2012, AEP completed an upgrade of that line and other improvements in Presidio at a cost of $67 million.

The Electric Reliability Council of Texas (ERCOT) manages the flow of electric power to 24 million Texas customers, representing about 90 percent of the state’s electric load. As the independent system operator for the region, ERCOT schedules power on an electric grid that connects more than 43,000 miles of transmission lines and 550-generation units.

Lower Colorado River Authority (LCRA) provides power, manages the lower Colorado River basin, and builds and operates transmission lines across the state. Created by the Texas Legislature in 1934.

Public Utilities Commission of Texas (PUC) regulates the state’s electric, telecommunication, and water and sewer utilities, implements respective legislation, and offers customer assistance in resolving consumer complaints. Electric cooperatives such as Rio Grande Electric are not subject to its purview. The Lower Colorado River Authority (LCRA) is subject to the commission’s authority.

Rio Grande Electric Cooperative (RGEC) provides electricity to the region, including to Big Bend National Park, Terlingua and Lajitas, and has done so for decades. RGEC has the largest service area of any electric cooperative in the contiguous United States, covering approximately 35,000 square miles.

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