CenterPoint in power struggle over transmission line plan

Mark and Gretta Sleeper saved for years to buy a piece of unspoiled paradise — 26 acres of shade trees and tall grasses in Austin County, miles from where new houses rise with the sun in Houston.

But five years after the Sleepers bought the land and built a house with their own hands, they say that quietude is now threatened by plans to build a $175 million power line that would entail clear-cutting a 150-foot-wide swath of their post and water oaks.

“It is heartbreaking,” Gretta Sleeper said. “This is a special place for us. This is where we want to grow old, but nobody wants to live under power lines.”

Their land is part of a fight that stretches over five counties and about 60 miles, pitting CenterPoint Energy against an unlikely alliance of ranchers, Republican officeholders, property owners and environmentalists.

The 345-kilovolt line, as proposed by the company, would run from rural Fayette County through farms and ranches, preserved prairie and habitat for the Houston toad and other endangered species before ending in west Harris County.

Opponents of the line say it is nothing more than a way for Houston to plug into cheaper coal-fired power at the expense of rural property owners.

But CenterPoint, which delivers power to Houston, says the line is necessary to improve the reliability of the city’s electric grid and would lower costs for consumers.

Recent studies show that Houston’s increasing demands have caused congestion on circuits bringing power from elsewhere in recent years, said John Kellum, director of transmission operations for CenterPoint. “This project will eliminate transmission constraints.”

Consumer savings

The Electric Reliability Council of Texas, the agency that manages the Texas grid, has endorsed the proposal, but acknowledged that it would not be necessary for reliability before 2014. The agency’s studies suggest that reliability may be an issue for the Houston area by 2018 if additional generation units are shut down.

ERCOT, however, said the project is financially justified because the line would reduce congestion costs, providing as much as $45 million a year in savings to consumers.

But the people of Austin, Colorado, Fayette and Waller counties will see only 151-foot steel towers that would hold the line across the pastoral landscape and not any of the economic benefit, critics say.

The dispute has drawn in pecan growers, parents with worries about the health risks of overhead power lines and retirees who have bought into the pastoral life only to find their land in the path of the proposed line. They have formed a few opposition groups, including Save Cat Spring and Voices Opposed to Large Transmission-lines, or VOLT.

Houston neurologist Bob Blacklock bought 104 acres in Austin County last year to build a house for retirement. But he has put the plans on hold because the power line, as proposed, would run along his fence line.

Even then, he would not be eligible for compensation from CenterPoint because the easement is on his neighbor’s side of the fence. With the power line, the land would sell only for cattle grazing, an 80 percent loss in value, he said.

“This isn’t just an issue of not in my backyard,” he said. “I understand the public good of power. But why are they ripping up one of the prettiest areas in Texas? Austin County sees no benefit. It’s just in the way.”

Endangered toad

Also in the way is habitat for the endangered Houston toad, which all but vanished because of rapid development and drought. The amphibian is sensitive to heat and spends much of its time buried in the cool sand near woods and water.

The toad’s habitat would be further fragmented by the power line because it does not cross unforested areas, said Paul Crump, the Houston Zoo’s amphibian conservation manager.

Crump and others say CenterPoint considered only a narrow band – about 20 miles wide – for the proposed path and that less-intrusive alternatives along Interstate 10 should be weighed. Area Republicans – state Sen. Glenn Hegar and Reps. Lois Kolkhorst and John Zerwas – have asked the Public Utility Commission of Texas, which will have the final say on the route next year, to look at “all available options.”

CenterPoint’s Kellum said the company looked at a path for the line along the I-10 but found that it would be cost prohibitive – as much as three times more expensive to build than as proposed. He said the proposed pathway tries to follow roads, property lines and pipeline easements to alleviate the burden on landowners.

But that doesn’t console the Sleepers, who spent nearly a year to find the right piece of land to build their home and train horses. The property happens to have an easement for an underground pipeline, which the proposed power line follows.

“We fell in love with the property because we could have lovely shaded trails to ride on,” Gretta Sleeper said. “That’s the charm of the property, and they could end up wiping it out.”