Alta Wind: A story of public policy gone right


I’d like to tell you about the Alta Wind Energy Center – the worlds largest proposed wind power plant, that will be breaking ground on Tuesday in the middle of California – and how public policy got us to this milestone.

Wind farm at Tehachapi Pass, CA

It’s never hard to see where public policy has failed.  Can you think of an example?  Good for you!  See?  Not hard.

What is often much harder to notice, however, is where policy has done something amazing, which it does, but no one notices.  These success stories are important because they give us hope that we can improve the world through good thinking – something we need in order to combat the cynical feelings that can cloud one’s purpose.  More importantly though, they often give us an insight into how things went right in the first place, so that we can do them again, but with other good ideas.

Tower of the Winds, Athens

A Need to be Resourceful.

Our country uses energy.  A lot.  This energy consumption allows us to do amazing things – we heal the sick at hospitals, do cutting-edge research on all kinds of things, and we transport stuff all over the place (people, products, ideas).

The energy consumption also has some big draw-backs.  We become vulnerable to unstable countries that provide us with oil.  We pollute our environment, threatening both our health and resources.  Solutions?  Well, ideas are all over the place, but a lot of them die a public death in the national political stage.  Where do we turn, then, for a better policy on energy?  The story of Alta Wind provides an alternative narrative of this path.

Creating the right conditions for players to show up.

Our story begins in 1973, when the Oil Crisis shocked the United States into a search for a domestic alternative to imported oil.  To aid this search, congress passed a series of tax incentives during the early days of the Regan Administration, which produced financial incentives for domestic companies to purchase wind turbines – like the three-bladed turbines Vestas had been developing for an as-yet almost non-existent international market.  Vestas eventually sells hundreds of turbines to Zond Corp., a US wind company, struggling to find a way to produce wind farms domestically.

Zond corporation, based in California, eventually becomes the largest US supplier of wind energy in America, and is purchased by Enron in 1997.  Enron, located in Texas, recognizes the advantages of wind development in a state with relatively high electrical costs (most electrical plants are fueled by natural gas – a more expensive alternative to coal and hydro-based plants) and relatively large wind generation potential (aka, it’s windy in Texas).  After significant growth of Enron Wind (though not profitability), Enron’s dramatic demise prompts the asset to be sold to General Electric in 2002, where it is now known as GE Wind Energy.

Do you know which way it’s blowing?

Creating the Stage.

California is many things – one of which is a leader in aggressive environmental regulation.  California has a special exemption from the federal EPA to make up its own rules regarding environmental standards – often much more rigid than federal standards.  Due to its size, California wields a great deal of influence in a variety of industries – a history worth noting, because California established two key renewable energy guidelines: that 20% of the state’s electricity must come from renewable sources by 2010, and 33% by 2030.

Leadership, leadership, leadership.

That a comprehensive energy plan has not been taken up by Congress belies the work done all along on other levels.  In an economy wracked by 10% unemployment, many state and local leaders have looked to “green-collar” job creation as a way to turn the corner on local economic recessions.  Governor Schwarzenegger has hammered away at environmental issues during his tenure as governor, passing the landmark AB 32 bill in 2006 (I highly recommend this site for an interesting look at how business is responding).  He has also signed legislation creating a finance mechanism for businesses and private residents to borrow money from municipal sources to make energy-efficiency upgrades through the PACE program, passed a sales tax exemption for green-tech producers, and legislated increased use of net-metering, where people on the electrical grid earn money by providing electricity from home-installed solar panels.  In this environment, green-tech development found a natural home – and market – for its products.

Lessons from the story?

So what can we learn from the Alta Wind project?  First off, timing is as important as idea-generation.  These actors and conditions took years to coalesce (including the Great Recession) – not that any of them was ever idle, but rather that revolutionary change is often the byproduct of evolutionary change.  But as important as taking normal-sized steps is creating a clear picture of the benefits – simply showing a picture of a tree is not as valuable as telling someone that what you are proposing will fix something that they already identify as a problem – no job, trouble breathing in the current air quality, high electrical bills due to a warmer environment – rather than selling them on what you think is a problem.

Am I missing any?  What do you think?