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Texas should rethink power "island" status: FERC

HOUSTON (Reuters) - Texas, the state with the largest number of wind turbines, should consider expanding its transmission ties to other states to take full advantage of its wind potential, the nation’s top federal energy regulator said on Tuesday.

Texas could benefit from closer electric connection with the rest of the country, Jon Wellinghoff, chairman of the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, said at a press conference at the American Wind Energy Association meeting in Chicago, monitored by telephone.

The primary Texas grid, called the Electric Reliability Council of Texas (ERCOT), is not interconnected to the rest of the nation, meaning that the electricity produced in Texas stays in the state. While ERCOT covers about 85 percent of the state, a few areas, including the windy Texas panhandle and far west Texas, lie outside ERCOT.

Texas regulators and most industry participants have long preferred that Texas remain a single-state power “island,” because it limits the ability of Wellinghoff’s federal agency to intervene in Texas electric transmission and wholesale market activity.

Electric grid oversight and market disputes are handled by the three-member Texas Public Utility Commission.

Wellinghoff, who was appointed to FERC in 2006, understands Texans’ aversion to FERC, saying he had no interest in expanding his agency’s jurisdiction over the state.

However, Wellinghoff said the growing amount of wind power generated in Texas might be easier to integrate in a larger market area.

“If Texas could be more strongly interconnected to the Midwest, for example, they could integrate even more wind into the system,” said Wellinghoff. “It would be a benefit to them, from that standpoint, and should be something that they ought to consider.”

ERCOT has 8,000 megawatts of wind generation and state regulators have approved a plan to build $5 billion in new power lines over the next few years to ease transmission congestion and accommodate as much as 18,500 MW of wind, or 20 percent of ERCOT’s capacity.

The state-versus-federal jurisdiction issue was on the minds of Texas utility commissioners as they identified paths for the wind-related lines outside ERCOT’s boundaries.

Changing ERCOT’s footprint “is not necessary,” said PUCT Chairman Barry Smitherman, in a separate phone interview.

“I would argue that it’s no accident that ERCOT has achieved the results we have on our transmission build out, our wind penetration and our smart meters that the rest of the country is still studying and we are taking action,” said Smitherman.

Power from new wind farms in the panhandle will flow into the multi-state Southwest Power Pool (SPP) grid, he said.

“We maintain our independence, but still allows us to access the wind up there,” Smitherman said.

SPP is also planning to build new transmission lines to move anticipated wind generation from Texas, Oklahoma and Kansas to Midwest power markets.

“We can get a lot of wind out of the panhandle to the Midwest through SPP,” said Smitherman. “We don’t need to integrate ERCOT” into the rest of the nation’s grid.

Editing by Carol Bishopric

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