Population growth in Texas is straining the state's transmission siting rules, and state regulators say they expect the problem to continue until changes are made in the process of granting some projects a certificate of convenience and necessity (CCN).
The Public Utility Commission of Texas (PUCT) is considering a pair of transmission line reroutes, including one located entirely on a single developer's property in central Texas and operated by Pedernales Electric Cooperative.
That decision could upend decades of precedent on landowner rights, commissioners noted, as neighboring landowners have intervened to object to the project. "This is going to happen over and over and over again," Commissioner Will McAdams warned at the commission's Feb. 25 open meeting.
Texas was the fastest-growing state in the country last year according to U.S. census data, and PUCT commissioners noted that some of that growth is happening in rural areas unfamiliar with the pace of change.
"We are in a rapidly growing state ... with a tremendous amount of population and economic growth throughout the entire state, in rural areas in areas that had not had that kind of growth in the past," Commissioner Lori Cobos said. "And because of that, we're going to be seeing these [siting] issues come up more and more in the future."
At issue in the Pedernales co-op case is a planned reroute of 138-kilovolt transmission line to accommodate a golf course. Because the planned new route exists entirely within a tract owned by developer Driftwood DLC Austin, and the transmission reroute would also be paid for by the developer, the commission's rules allow for "routine" changes without the need for a new CCN. PUCT staff issued a proposal for decision in October allowing Pedernales, which holds the CCN, to alter the transmission route. But landowners adjacent to Driftwood intervened, noting that the new route would bring the transmission line within 300 feet of their homes, and they challenged that the new route was not a "routine" change.
"This does not fit neatly within our existing CCN rule," Chairman Peter Lake said. "It's a very, very gray area. I mean, it's a tough one. No matter what we want the law or the rules to look like, it's not crystal clear and it's not straightforward."
The rules, as written, allow the PUCT to approve the proposed decision and for the line to be moved, Cobos noted. If the commission chooses to require a CCN proceeding, that would be unusual.
"We'd be granting an exception to an exemption and ... from a policy standpoint, that is tricky," Cobos said.
In an unrelated case, commissioners are being asked to approve a 345-kilovolt transmission reroute proposed by AEP Texas, and their decision will determine which among multiple landowners are impacted. In both cases, the commission has heard emotional testimony from landowners who purchased their land and homes for the unobstructed views.
The line "will reduce congestion, thus facilitating the flow of economic power," according to a proposal for decision in the AEP case.
"These are never easy," Lake said. Discussion among the commissioners at the Feb. 25 meeting yielded little agreement.
Commissioner McAdams asked if the situation could be considered "a jump ball between neighbors."
"Given the variety of opinions," the commission delayed a decision until its next open meeting on Thursday. But Lake noted, "this is a critical line and a priority for ERCOT."
In the Pedernales proceeding, the utility is providing regulators will additional information on the state of negotiations with landowners and the developer, including the possibility that Driftwood might pay to underground the line.
Cobos said clearer rules on how to make some siting decisions may be needed and could be considered in an upcoming rulemaking, in particular when a new CCN review is triggered.
"I think from a policy standpoint ... because our state is growing so much, you know, determining where that threshold is, is very important," Cobos said. "Otherwise, we're going to end up in a situation where we're constantly asking for CCN amendments."