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Texas wind market grinds to a halt -- Accidental victim of legisative dispute, but hope in sight

Legislation that would have increased the Texas renewables portfolio standard (RPS) to keep the wind market moving died after being caught in legislative crossfire, the victim of a dispute between the two houses of state government over an unrelated telecommunications bill. The state's Senate and House of Representatives each passed slightly different bills to increase the renewables mandate to as much as 7% of the state's energy needs. But a committee assigned to work out the differences in the two bills stalled over the telecommunications bill. The mandatory May 31 close of the legislative session came before it could resolve its deadlock.

"Had it not been for this fight over the telecom bill, I believe lawmakers would have passed a bill increasing our renewable energy goal," says Tom Smith, director of the Texas office of Public Citizen, a policy watchdog organization. The Texas RPS has been one of the world's most successful market frameworks for wind power development.

There was broad support in both the House and Senate for increasing the goal, Smith says, which currently aims to get 2880 MW, or about 3% of the state's electricity, from renewable sources by 2009, a goal Texas is expected to reach by the end of the year. The House voted to increase the mandate to 7880 MW by 2017, equivalent to about 7% of the state's needs. Earlier in the session, the Senate passed a bill calling for a new goal of 5880 MW, or about 5% of electricity.

Supporters take hope from the strong government and public support of a higher target, says Travis Brown, also with Public Citizen's Texas office. Every major newspaper in the state has come out in favour of increasing the mandate, he says. And although it will be two years before the legislature meets again, it is possible that lawmakers will have another chance to tackle the issue during a special session expected to be called to deal with the state's school finance woes. That special session could come as soon as this summer or perhaps next spring.

"If a special session doesn't happen," says Brown, "it's obviously not good news for the wind industry in Texas. It could mean some stagnation, some slow down."

Transmission corridors

Language in the moribund legislation would also have eased the transmission bottleneck that has stymied wind development in West Texas. It called for designation of corridors where wind development is likely so transmission lines can be built in anticipation of future wind projects. Costs for the lines would be borne by all ratepayers.

Since transmission lines can take years to permit and construct, pre-building solves a "chicken and the egg" problem wind developers currently face, says Susan Williams Sloan of The Wind Coalition, a non-profit association formed to encourage the development of the vast wind energy resources of the south central US. Even without legislation, says Williams Sloan, the strong support in both houses of government gives the public utility commission a clear signal that it could move ahead with the zones.

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