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.

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 Americans were worried about pollution and would pay a small premium for an environmentally friendly electricity product: With U.S. households spending $100 billion annually on electricity, the market appeared lucrative. After shortening the name to Green Mountain Energy, Wyly, who along with his investment group was now the company’s principal owner, said, “We’re combining three elements that can’t fail: the Vermont environmental ethic, Texas capital, and old-fashioned American entrepreneurs’ frontier spirit.” In 2000, determined to make Green Mountain a bigger player, Wyly moved its headquarters to Austin.

So Wyly sought Bush’s ear with two priorities: deregulating the electricity market, which would break the hold of the major utilities, and making Texas energy greener, by combating the haze from automobiles and power plants that lingered over Dallas and Houston. Deregulating electricity meant lining up a kind of Rubik’s Cube of interests, from investor-owned utilities and organized labor to environmental groups and large businesses that were the chief electricity consumers. In 1999 Wood, Bush’s right-hand man on utilities, teamed up with two lawmakers, Steve Wolens, a Democratic state representative from Dallas, and David Sibley, a Republican state senator from Waco. Through late-night sessions that Wood remembers as “like crashing for the final exam with your study group for three months,” he, Wolens, and Sibley crafted a bill that boldly deregulated Texas’s electricity markets and required some cleanup of the old coal plants that had been bothering environmentalists. It also contained a “renewable portfolio standard,” which required that electricity providers collectively install 2,000 megawatts of additional renewable energy capacity by 2009. (Renewable energy was understood to be wind because wind was cheaper than solar power or geothermal power, especially when a federal tax credit for wind production was factored in, and Texas was essentially maxed out on hydropower.) “There were a lot of moving parts and a lot of whiny people,” says Sibley. But when it came to the wind piece, a minuscule price for the utilities to pay for freer access to potential markets, there was not much whining.

The 2,000-megawatt goal, far from being random, would feed perfectly into good old Texas boosterism. At the time, fewer than 2,000 megawatts of wind were installed across the United States. “We wanted to be able to say that this would double the amount of wind generation in the country,” says Jim Marston, of the Environmental Defense Fund, who was closely involved in the negotiations.

And so, on June 18, 1999, six days after declaring he was a candidate for president, Governor Bush signed Senate Bill 7 into law, propelling the Texas wind industry past California and every other state in the country. Factories in Europe suddenly found themselves cranking out wind turbines and shipping them to West Texas

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