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Swift Boats and Texas Wind

What’s the connection between the controversial Swift Boat television ads that helped scuttle John Kerry’s presidential bid and the forces that helped propel Texas to be a leader in wind?

Kate Galbraith and Asher Price just did an awesome job telling the story of how Texas became a leader in wind energy—especially about the dreamers behind its rise—in A Mighty Wind published in Texas Monthly magazine.

That’s where I discovered this odd, yet remarkable connection between the Swift Boat Veterans for Truth and Texas’s swift rise as a worldwide wind industry player—home to two of the largest onshore wind farms on the planet: the Roscoe Wind Farm and the Horse Hollow Wind Energy Center.

Stay with me, this is the kind of stuff that wins bar bets and trivia contests.

Who else is connected? George W. Bush. Yep, the same Dubya who is often maligned by environmentalists and renewable energy advocates. Bush, while governor of Texas, helped champion those causes more than most of this camp care to believe—or may ever readily admit.

Luckily, I had the pleasure to witness the former president receive three standing ovations in a packed room at the 2010 American Wind Energy Association’s (AWEA) annual conference in Dallas.

Imagine that. Surprising how stories often turn out.

Let’s keep politics aside and get to the connection.

Here are some excerpts from what reads like a novel (our emphasis and links):

Governor Bush likes wind.

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 supporter Wyly likes wind. Kerry for president, not so much.
Wyly backs Swift Boat television ads.

Ironically, Senator Kerry was an early opponent of Cape Wind—and Wyly “the wind guy”.

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.

Change policy: deregulate electricity market and embrace “green”.

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.

The law of the land enables the wind boom to begin.

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 as fast as they could. Country roads are now cracked and worn from the treads of big trucks hauling enormous steel towers and blades to their new homes. Federal production incentives are still in place, and the state is helping to build transmission lines. But mandates are no longer necessary, since Texas has blown right past them and now has more than 10,000 megawatts of wind—five times the ten-year goal set in 1999.

Green envy.

Texas’s top-dog status in wind is relished by politicians from the current governor on down, who whoop about the state as a trendsetter for the national “green” movement even while agitating for fewer regulations on fossil fuel drilling. “Texas is for us now sort of an inspiration, weird as that may seem,” says V. John White, a leading California renewables advocate, a tinge of envy in his voice.

Remember, don’t miss the whole article—it’s a great read. Enjoy!