A Mighty Wind

Giant turbines topped by aerodynamic blades account for a rising share of the state’s electrical grid—and may change the way people look at green energy (and Texas). But getting here wasn’t easy. Just ask the dreamers who started it all.

Delaware Mountains of Culberson County, a place so remote that for the opening ceremony, three counties had to be scoured to find enough nice linen for tablecloths. When all 112 turbines went up, it was the country’s largest wind farm outside California, and it could provide 35 megawatts of energy—insignificant in the scheme of things but enough to power 10,000 or more homes. Rose paid roughly double what the LCRA usually paid for electricity and was glad to do it. “I literally said to my board, ‘These are spiritual megawatts. Don’t ask me to justify them,’ ” recalls Rose.

The Delaware Mountains site was the windiest anyone could find (save for the area around nearby Guadalupe Peak, which was off-limits because it was in a national park). “It was a great site,” says King. “I mean, if you got out of the car with the car facing the wrong direction, it’d rip the door off on a good day.” Not to mention the turbines themselves. A few months after the site opened, a monster winter storm blew through, with winds of up to 163 miles per hour. Two towers fell, and dozens more suffered damage. “One of the things we learned,” King recalls with a chuckle, “was you don’t necessarily want the windiest place.”

At the time, though, King was past caring. The wind farm got rebuilt, but Kenetech had filed for bankruptcy thanks to various problems, including a regulatory move that caused its California wind expansion plans to implode. It felt like Enron before Enron, but without the shenanigans. “The stock went to zero. I think I sold it before it got to fourteen cents, but I didn’t make much money,” King says.

That might have been yet another death knell for the Texas wind rush. But it was not lost on the windmen that the state government had helped Kenetech’s project get around several regulatory hurdles. Nor was it lost on Texas educators that this was a new source of income: A check for nearly $30,000 landed in the Permanent School Fund in 1996. It wasn’t oil money, but it was a start.

And so in the late nineties, a scattering of landmen and self-styled windcatters fanned out across the Texas mesas, looking for county officials who would grant them tax abatements and landowners who were willing to take a chance on a new kind of enterprise. Some landowners who felt they had been screwed by oil companies said yes; maybe wind would treat them better. Others were just glad to find someone offering money for land that had no oil. And a few wind farms, even bigger than what Kenetech had built, went up. One entrepreneur who led the way was a soft-spoken young man from Brenham named Walter Hornaday, who had used an inheritance from an uncle to found a company called Texas Wind Power in 1991 while he attended engineering graduate school at UT. At first the company dismantled broken-down turbines and used the parts to fix others. Hornaday got his start trying to take apart a machine on a lonely stretch of highway near Belmont. “I underestimated how difficult it was to work forty feet up in the air, hanging by a safety harness, in the wind,” he remembers now. “And I had a crane paid by the hour waiting while I got my act together.”

When the company, newly renamed Cielo (Spanish for “sky”), built its first big wind farm, about an hour south of Odessa, Hornaday made sure the European-made turbines he used could withstand lightning. And he made sure somebody carried a shotgun to kill the rattlesnakes that would slither into the foundation holes they dug. Hornaday worked to get in ahead of the other big wind developers who were sniffing around, such as Zond, a California wind company that Enron bought in 1997 and rebranded Enron Wind. (Five years later, the company’s wind assets were among the first pieces of Enron sold off after its collapse.)

But the policy push—which is what really sparked the wind rush—was just beginning. And it centered on an improbable figure: Governor George W. Bush, a man steeped in oil who’d spent a youthful summer roustabouting on a Louisiana offshore rig, turned himself into a landman in Midland, and then, in 1979, set up an oil and gas exploration business of his own. Bush had felt the harshness of the West Texas winds; Midland, after all, was called Windmill Town before oil was found there, because almost every home had one to draw water. He may also have felt the tug of national ambitions when, one day in 1996, he said some unexpected words to Public Utility Commission chairman Pat Wood as Wood headed out the door of the governor’s office. “Oh, Pat, by the way, we like wind,” Bush said. Wood was dumbfounded. “I said, ‘We what?’ ” he recounts. “Go get smart on wind,” Bush replied.

Bush soon had another reason for liking wind: One of his chief contributors, Sam Wyly, a wealthy Dallas investor who later helped pay for the Swift Boat ads attacking Senator John Kerry, was becoming a renewable advocate, with some skin in the game. Wyly’s improbable entry into the world of alternative energy was inspired by his daughter Christiana. One spring afternoon in 1992, the eleven-year-old was running around a football field at the elite Berkeley Hall School high above Los Angeles and cast an eye down at the brown haze that sat atop the city. She was suffocated with terror. “I had this feeling of powerlessness, of breathing in dirty air, and I could do nothing to stop it,” she says.

As it turned out, she could do something about it: talk to her daddy, who saw a business opportunity in his daughter’s fear. In 1997 Wyly bought a $30 million stake in Green Mountain Energy Resources, a subsidiary of a sleepy Vermont utility that hoped to break into deregulated electricity markets as a renewable energy competitor. Green Mountain’s own research suggested that a fifth of

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