I first see the turbines as I speed along I-25 near Glenrock, Wyo., clutching the steering wheel as I try to avoid being swatted into oblivion by a wind-whipped tanker truck. The windmills look tiny from here, sprouting from the flat beige plain like sunflowers in a neglected field. Wanting a closer look, I take the Glenrock exit, meander through town, cross the North Platte River and soon discover that the landscape is not flat at all. It undulates, sometimes steeply. Railroad tracks run along the low point in a furrow, an age-streaked oil tank nearby. A massive power plant sits by the river; a trailer, its roof weighted down with tires, hunkers into the hillside.
The little car labors up another hill, and there the turbines are again, but this time they rise up from sage and grass like giants, toying with the little shards of light that penetrate the milky, dense frog-belly sky. Their rotors spin neurotically, as though they are desperately waving me away, or warning, perhaps, that all is not what it seems. Maybe Don Quixote wasn't crazy after all.
Wyoming may be the best place in the United States to generate electricity from wind. Thanks to a dip in the Continental Divide as it wends through the state, it has about half of all the top-quality (class 5, 6 and 7) wind in the country. That means that a turbine here can crank out as much as 30 percent more juice than one in, say, Texas or California. With a total population of just half a million, the state has plenty of uninhabited spaces for turbines, and it is famous for welcoming energy development. So companies have stampeded into the Cowboy State, reaching for every gust they can. They put up mobile anemometers alongside windy highways and in the sagebrush sea; their landmen scour ridges and ranches, toting proposals and contracts, hoping to grab their piece of state, federal or private land. Wyoming's governor compares the frenzy to a gold rush.
That rush, however, is faltering. Today, Wyoming has just 1,000 megawatts of wind capacity, one-eighth of what Texas has. Facing regulatory and political uncertainty, at least one wind-farm proposal has been yanked off the table, and the future of others is in doubt. Legislators, wildlife officials and people in the governor's office have sent out increasingly mixed messages about the wind rush -- or onslaught.
It is, indeed, confusing. Because most of the objections to wind farms cite environmental problems, it might appear that Wyoming has finally gone green -- standing up to energy developers in hopes of preserving its wild lands. And many environmentalists do see wind as yet another "clean" energy source with a dark side -- like hydroelectric dams or coalbed methane, which has transformed swaths of the state into drill-rig pincushions.
Look closer, however, and you'll find that much of the resistance to wind actually comes from the fossil fuel industry and the politics it bankrolls. Wyoming is the largest coal producer in the nation and the third-largest producer of natural gas; at least one town is named after an oil company. Severance taxes and royalties from these industries keep the state's government, schools and other services afloat. In an indirect and sometimes convoluted way, wind threatens that old-school energy dynamic. At an August symposium on wind energy at the University of Wyoming in Laramie, Aaron Clark, an advisor to the governor, put it candidly: "We can't let wind development hurt the state's revenue stream from extractive minerals."
The conflict manifests itself in two unlikely and disparate characters: The oil-baron scion of one of Wyoming's most influential families, and a chicken-sized bird that may soon be listed as endangered. Wyoming's politics, tumbled by the wind, have become almost as peculiar as the state's mammalian icon, the mythical jackalope.