July 5, 2023 640 PM
TRI-COUNTY — Upgrades to a nearly 100-year-old transmission line running from Marfa to Fort Davis prompted by American Electric Power (AEP), originally anticipated to occur in Spring 2023, have been delayed.
AEP selected the transmission line for the upgrade due to its age and significance as the only source of power for Fort Davis residents. The upgrade will involve erecting new 75- to 85-feet-tall weathered steel poles the company argues are more resilient and reliable in place of the existing wooden poles.
“We want that line to look like the Marfa to Presidio line,” said Blake Burchard, external affairs manager at AEP. “It’s a monopole, it’s brand new construction, and it’s just more durable.”
AEP will submit an application for the project with the Public Utilities Commission (PUC), which will have to approve the project and select a specific route for the line to go. The application is due September 2024. If the project is approved, construction is slated to start by the end of 2024 or early 2025.
“As far as exact timing, when you push a project out, there’s dates out there, but it’s all just guesstimate,” said Burchard.
Given the company’s scope of service covering many states and areas across Texas, it is possible that the line upgrade isn’t AEP’s top priority at the moment, said Burchard, considering other parts of the state are experiencing more severe and routine power outages as a result of extreme weather and growing populations.
“You’ve got to look at where you have your worst outages,” said Burchard. “And this one may not be as far up on the list.”
“Out there in Marfa and Alpine, there’s just not a lot of growth,” he added. “When it comes time to rebuild that line, we’ll rebuild that line.”
The existing line runs from the Alamito Creek substation located in Marfa in Sal Si Puedes, and snakes its way north through ranchland to Fort Davis’ substation. While it is possible the project will involve simply upgrading the existing route as is, a number of other route options for the line were studied and will be presented to the PUC.
In early 2022, AEP representatives held public meetings on the project in both Fort Davis and Marfa where residents viewed maps and talked over the finer points with staffers. Common concerns over how the much larger poles would affect the viewshed along TX-17 were brought to AEP’s attention, while some Sal Si Puedes residents expressed concern over what they felt is an oversized infrastructure presence in their residential neighborhood.
At the time, the Big Bend Conservation Alliance, with the cooperation of some Sal Si Puedes residents, said it would work with local and state political leaders to ensure a public hearing, part of the PUC’s approval process, would be virtual to allow Big Bend residents to attend.
Local residents in Marfa and Fort Davis weren’t the only ones weary of the transmission line upgrade. The Dixon Water Foundation, a nonprofit environmental organization, opposed potential routes that would see new transmission lines installed on their 16,000-acre undeveloped research ranch.
“We have many concerns regarding grassland habitat, and the fact that the route cuts directly through several miles of the center of our property, instead of running along a property boundary,” said Philip Boyd, Dixon’s director of science and communications. “This route could compromise not only several miles of infrastructure that is essential to our ranching operation, but also disrupt miles of grassland habitat we work to conserve.”
Boyd said early on the foundation shared their concerns and those of their educational partners with AEP and are continuing to stay involved with the transmission line upgrade project.
“Since the outreach phase of the project concluded, we are soliciting updates from time to time, trying to stay informed, and will determine next steps as needed,” said Boyd.
Burchard said all public feedback collected from affected landowners and the public the company collected during meetings in the area will be included in AEP’s PUC application.
The cost of the transmission line upgrade project will be passed down to ratepayers. The new steel poles will be built to 138 kilovolt (kV) capacity. While the Alamito Creek substation in Marfa is built to accommodate that voltage, the Fort Davis substation is not, topping out at 69kV, but could be upgraded in the future, if needed, said Burchard. Routine, ongoing maintenance to existing poles recently took place along TX-17.
For more information, visit aeptransmission.com/texas/AlamitoCreek-FortDavis/