AUSTIN, Texas — Texas officials gave the go-ahead Thursday to the nation's largest wind-power project, a plan to build billions of dollars worth of new transmission lines to bring pollution-free energy from gusty West Texas to urban areas.
Texas is already the national leader in wind power, and wind supporters say Thursday's move by the Public Utility Commission will make the Lone Star State a leader in moving energy to the urban areas that need electricity.
"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."
"People think about oil wells and football in Texas, but in 10 years they'll look back and say this was a brilliant thing to do," added Patrick Woodson, vice president of E.On Climate & Renewables North America, which has about 1,200 megawatts of wind projects already in use or on the drawing board in Texas.
Some environmentalists and landowners have launched protests against wind turbines from Cape Cod in Massachusetts to Idaho and Texas' South Padre Island, complaining that wind turbines spoil the view and threaten migrating birds.
But the turbines are already in West Texas, a sparsely populated region also pockmarked with oil drilling and exploration equipment. And this project will build only transmission lines.
Expected to be finalized later this year, the approval represents a middle ground between five transmission scenarios ranging from $3 billion to $6.4 billion. The PUC had been asked by the Texas legislature to select the best transmission plan.
"It is expected that the new lines will be in service within four to five years," The PUC said in a statement.
Backers called the move a critical expansion of the "renewable energy superhighway," predicting it will spur wind energy projects, create jobs, reduce energy costs and reduce pollution.
$4 more a month on bills
Texas electric customers will bear the cost over the next several years, paying about $4 more per month on their electric bills.
Tom Smith, director of the Texas office of the consumer advocacy group Public Citizen, called that a small price to pay for clean energy.
Smith called Texas' current transmission lines a "two-lane dirt road" compared to the "renewable energy superhighway" the plan would build. "We have all these wind plants up and operating. What we're asking for is the superhighway to get the energy to the cities," Smith said. "This will send signals to manufacturers all across the world Texas is ready to be a world-class player in renewable energy."
State officials note the rate increases could be several years away, and the payments would be no different than the current system of paying for new transmission lines from power plants.
Wind power also benefits from a 2-cents-per-kilowatt-hour tax credit. The credit is set to expire in December, and wind backers have urged Congress to enact a long-term extension.
The 2-1 vote by the PUC didn't commit to as large a project as some environmental groups and state lawmakers had wanted. The plan would transmit a little more than half the energy some advocated.
Texas already generates about 5,000 megawatts of wind power, more than any other state.
Most of Texas' wind-energy production is in petroleum-producing West Texas, where nearly 4,000 wind turbines tower over oil pump jacks and capture the breeze that blows across the flat and largely barren landscape.
The new plan would not directly build a slew of new turbines, but would add transmission lines capable of moving about 18,000 megawatts. One expert said that is enough to power more than 4 million Texas homes.
Visionary, or socialism?
"The capacity for wind generation in west and north Texas is so great that we could position ourselves in Texas to be the world leader in wind and renewable energy in the next 100 years, just as we were the world leader in oil and gas for the past 100 years," Democratic state Rep. Mark Strama said earlier this week.
Opponents include the Texas Public Policy Foundation, which advocates for limited government.
"The costs of building those new transmission lines should be borne by the companies who develop the wind and solar farms, as well as the consumers who purchase that energy," foundation analyst Drew Thornley was quoted in the Houston Chronicle as saying. "They should not be socialized across every ratepayer."
PUC Commissioner Julie Parsley said she was worried about relying too heavily on wind since it doesn't blow all the time, potentially putting stress on the grid.
"I worry about the reliability of the system," Parsley was quoted by the Houston Chronicle as saying.
Oilman an early backer
One of wind's most surprising backers is legendary Texas oilman T. Boone Pickens.
Video: Pickens picks wind Pickens' company, Mesa Power, is purchasing hundreds of wind turbines to eventually cover 400,000 acres near Pampa, Texas, and generate enough power for more than 1.3 million homes.
"We are making Pampa the wind capital of the world," Pickens said last May.
Pickens said it would be the world's largest wind farm at a cost that could grow to $12 billion before its scheduled completion in 2014.
"It's clear that landowners and local officials understand the economic benefits that this renewable energy can bring not only to landowners who are involved with the project, but also in revitalizing an area that has struggled in recent years," he said.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.