Not long after Enron, one of our larger humpty-dumpties, had its great fall, I heard a supporter say he missed its CEO, because "Ken Lay was a visionary. He wanted to cover parts of Texas with wind turbines and export that clean energy to the rest of the country."
Yeah, a visionary.
Wind or natural gas or hog manure was all the same to Enron:
vehicles of enrichment. But Enron’s biggest crime
wasn’t financial trickery. It was its betrayal of the
nation’s stab at electric deregulation. Until Enron and the
little Enrons turned deregulation into a scandal, it had the
potential to break apart monopolistic utilities and open the way to
innovation, as happened in the telephone industry. Once Enron and
the gang of energy traders almost bankrupted California, the
restructuring of a stodgy industry came to a halt.
understand what electric utilities are, and why they must be shaken
up, imagine that Thomas Edison — dead since 1931— comes
to life and tours a "modern" coal-fired power plant. It would all
be familiar to him except the computerized control room. The plant
would be bigger and hotter and operate at a higher voltage, but the
underlying technology would be the same.
is antiquated, and it doesn’t always work: A recent report by
the industry’s research arm, the Electric Power Research
Institute, says that for every $100 Americans pay to a utility,
they spend another $50 on losses from outages, brownouts, voltage
fluctuations and the like.
As if the industry
didn’t have enough problems, this fall along came
Colorado’s ballot Initiative 37, which, now that it has
passed 53 percent to 47 percent, requires utilities to begin
selling electricity from renewable sources such as wind, solar,
flowing water, the burning of used french-fry oil. My local
electric utility, on whose board of directors I sit, voted to back
That made Delta-Montrose Electric
Association part of a tiny minority. On the other side were
Colorado’s major utilities, spending millions of customer
dollars. For giants like Xcel, it was about family values: They are
happily married to coal, and another partner in the bedroom is
anathema. They have a point. Winds start and stop without a
moment’s notice, while coal-fired power plants work best
flat-out. Ask a coal plant to quickly change speed to make up for a
drop in wind generation elsewhere on the system, and you will see a
But rather than figure out how to
add renewables to their mix, and rather than think, "Maybe we
should begin phasing out of coal and move into wind and
efficiency," Colorado’s utilities spent their
customers’ money begging voters to let them remain in the
early 20th century.
The utilities are not the only ones
wind power will trouble. It will give lots of us fits. I live
within a few miles of three mines that produce 1 percent of
America’s coal. But if not for train whistles and crossing
gates, I wouldn’t know I live in a coal valley. Underground
mines don’t leave much of a mark on the landscape.
By comparison, wind turbines take up lots of land and are visible
from far off. Ask the people on Cape Cod who object to a wind farm
proposed for the water off their shores.
Why then did I
— half utility beast and half environmental beast —
back renewable energy on Election Day? First, because integrating
wind into the electricity mix will force utility executives and
engineers to innovate, or to make way for those who can. With
deregulation dead, wind is the only modernizing tool for a
Second: Wind is not a utopian
idea. Wind is pragmatic, central-station power, like coal. Its
problems can be solved.
Third: After seeing photos of
melting polar ice caps in National Geographic, I believe in global
climate change. We must cut our use of fossil fuels.
There is also beauty. I visited a large wind ranch on the arid,
windy plains of New Mexico recently, where 136 turbines snake for
miles along the edge of a low cliff. Except for a recurring whoosh,
the machines were silent. What I most remember are the shadows of
the immense blades sweeping across the ground toward me.
The wind machines added to the beauty of that land, as windmills
add beauty to Holland’s coast. I could live among them, as I
now live among coal trains. All I ask is that some of the
electricity the turbines create out of thin air comes to me.