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.
To 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.
The technology 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 the initiative.
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 spectacular pile-up.
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 horse-and-buggy industry.
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.
Ed Marston writes in Paonia, Colorado.