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AEP planning major upgrade to power lines, poles between Marfa and Fort Davis

The electric transmission company wants to replace and upgrade its infrastructure between the two towns.

By Travis Bubenik

AEP Texas, the power lines company that services much of the Big Bend region, is planning a major upgrade for the electric line between Marfa and Fort Davis.

The company says it’s looking to replace the decades-old line over the next few years, and to replace the old wooden power poles that dot the highway between the two towns with much larger steel poles.

According to a fact sheet about the project, the company is planning to use “weathered” brown steel poles that could be as high as 85 feet. These types of poles are sometimes used by transmission companies in an effort to lessen the visual impacts of new infrastructure, the idea being that the brown-tinted poles blend in better with rural landscapes than silver steel poles.

AEP Texas spokesperson Blake Burchard joined us to talk more about the project.

Interview Highlights

On the reason for the upgrade

The existing grid infrastructure between Marfa and Fort Davis is simply past its functional lifespan, Burchard said. The electric line was originally built in 1929, according to AEP.

“In today’s line construction, we use these taller metal poles,” Burchard said. “They just withstand the weather a lot more...the wood poles we have now with crossarms on them, they’re wood. Lightning strikes and they can catch fire and cause problems, where these metal structures are just a lot more durable.”

Burchard said he couldn’t yet say exactly what height the new poles would be, though the company “generally” aims to use poles around 70-75 feet tall.

“If there’s a creek that we have to cross, we’ll have to go with taller poles in places to be able to span across creeks and low areas,” he said.

On the potential visual impacts to the landscape

Burchard said visual impacts from projects like this one are sometimes considered as part of the project’s overall impact to the land, depending on what kinds of twists and turns the electric line routing takes.

“We try to use larger, heavier-duty structures instead of using ‘guy-wires’,” Burchard said, referring to added tension wires that run from the tops of power poles to the ground to help stabilize the poles and electric lines.

“With this metal construction, we don’t have to have those,” he said.

On the route of the new electric line

The route for the upgraded electric line and power poles could follow the line’s existing path, Burchard said, but other options for new routes are also on the table.

“There’s a lot of different options,” he said. “There’s some pipelines, structures there now that weren’t there in 1929, that it may prove to be better to take a different route than what it is today.”

On the regulatory and public feedback process

AEP is gathering public feedback on the project, and will ultimately have to get certain regulatory approvals for the work from the Public Utility Commission of Texas.

The company has already held one virtual town hall-type discussion on the project, but is planning another one in the coming weeks or months.

“We do want some public input, we’re required to notify landowners within 300 feet of any of these proposed sections of line,” he said. “The hope is to have an in-person meeting in Marfa, occurring probably in January sometime, we just have to get past the holidays and secure a location to have that meeting.”

Burchard said AEP hopes to present the project to the PUC for regulatory approvals in early 2022. From there, the company currently estimates it could begin construction by the fall of 2024.

Travis Bubenik is All Things Considered Host and Big Bend Reporter at Marfa Public Radio.