AUSTIN, Texas &

Texas officials gave preliminary approval today to the nation's largest wind-power project, a plan to build billions of dollars worth of new transmission lines to bring wind energy from gusty West Texas to urban areas.




Texas is already the national leader in wind power, and supporters say today's move by the Public Utility Commission will make the Lone Star State a leader in moving energy to the urban areas consume it.




"We will add more wind than the 14 states following Texas combined," said PUC Commissioner Paul Hudson. "I think that's a very extraordinary achievement. Some think we haven't gone far enough, some think we've pushed too far."




Environmentalist and consumer groups called the move a critical expansion of the "renewable energy superhighway," predicting it will spur wind energy projects, create jobs, reduce energy costs and reduce pollution.




Texas electric customers will bear the cost of the $4.9 billion plan over the next several years, paying about $4 more per month on their electric bills, according to Tom Smith, director of the Texas office of the consumer advocacy group Public Citizen.




State officials, however, say those increases could be several years away, and the payments would be no different than the current system of paying for new transmission lines from power plants.




The 2-1 vote by the PUC, however, didn't commit to as large a project as some environmental groups and state lawmakers had wanted. The plan would transmit a little more than half the energy some advocated.




Texas already generates about 5,000 megawatts of wind power, more than any other state. The new plan would add transmission lines to boost capacity to about 18,000 megawatts.




The Electric Reliability Council of Texas says one megawatt of power provides enough electricity for 500 to 700 average homes under normal conditions in Texas, or about 200 homes during hot weather.




"The capacity for wind generation in west and north Texas is so great that we could position ourselves in Texas to be the world leader in wind and renewable energy in the next 100 years, just as we were the world leader in oil and gas for the past 100 years," Democratic state Rep. Mark Strama said earlier this week.