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State of the Valley

[State of the Valley]

There’s wind in them thar hills

Why a billionaire’s proposal to pursue alternative energy may not be so crazy

The green crowd is at it again, this time pushing for wind farms throughout much of the West and Great Plains. TV commercials are appearing nationally making the case, saying that a sea of wind towers could free us from our oil dependency, with a boost from cars fueled by natural gas. Pages have popped up on Facebook and MySpace, arguing for the push.

One pro-winder believes that the United States could be the Saudi Arabia of wind power. “The Department of Energy reports that 20 percent of America’s electricity can come from wind. North Dakota alone has the potential to provide power for more than a quarter of the country,” he writes.

The guy’s website offers a few Sierra Club-style shibboleths:

• Developing wind power is an investment in rural America.

• Natural gas is the cleanest transportation fuel available today.

• Building new wind-generation facilities and better utilizing our natural-gas resources can replace more than one-third of our foreign oil imports in 10 years.

No mention about the construction of Jim Gibbons-backed clean coal plants in Eastern Nevada. Nothing about technologically smart nuclear power plants, with the financial boon they could mean for Nevada via Yucca Mountain. The guy making the case for wind power is legendary Texas oilman and 1980s corporate raider T. Boone Pickens.

He’s scheduled to be in Nevada next month to speak at a conference co-sponsored by Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid. Review-Journal editorial writers will likely tell you that this T. Boone fellow—who claims Oklahoma as his birthplace and Texas as his professional home—must be one more Gore-loving tree hugger. He might even believe that climate change is real.

Pickens and others argue that wind power could generate tens of thousands of good, paying jobs in the United States, work that would employ skilled and unskilled construction workers, scientists, hourly wage workers and six-figure earners, let alone the many more who fill jobs indirectly created by the wind that blows through our canyons, valleys and streets.

They believe that wind power could transform struggling colleges and universities across the region into science-based centers of learning that draw first-rate professors and students. There’s talk that wind-rich West Texas and the struggling community of Sweetwater could evolve into what Houston and Dallas and Tulsa once were to oil.

They say wind could generate additional tax dollars for financially starved Western states, some of which lack a sales tax or broad-based corporate income tax or personal income tax that could help pay for the government services that many want but are reluctant to pay for.

Pickens recently told The Denver Post: “The thing that has not happened in this country is we have not been pressed to do anything. The reason we haven’t is there’s always been cheap oil.”

Just this past week, the Brookings Institution released a report that argues that five Western states—Nevada, Utah, Arizona, New Mexico and Colorado—are set to become key political and economic players in the United States, a five-state cluster that could surpass the clout of states in the upper Midwest. But to do so, the report argues, the five states will have to work together on common goals.

There is a precedent: the seven-state Colorado River compact, which divvies up water from the river. There have been limited interstate agreements on transportation issues. But it could be time for the leaders of the five Western states to work together on the development of a wind consortium. After all, the five state boundaries were the creation of surveyors, politicians and businessmen of the 1800s, not the forces of nature.

It’s difficult to see when you’re facing foreclosure or can’t pay the bills when $4.30-a-gallon gas is making you cut back on meals, but the economic meltdown provides this region with an opportunity, a chance to redesign what this valley might look like in 20 years.

We could wean ourselves—just a bit—from our overwhelming dependence on the casino and construction industries and develop a deeper job base, one that creates well-paying jobs for blue-collar workers and college graduates. It could raise the reputation of the region’s colleges and universities, luring faculty members who excel in math and science, recruiting students who want to study at cutting-edge institutions of learning. A lucrative wind-power industry could raise the allure of vocational schools and provide a productive outlet for students who are lost in traditional classrooms.

The region’s economy, which has excelled since the 1989 opening of the Mirage and, the following year, Excalibur, would continue to heavily rely upon the travel and tourism industry, but it could also tap into the worldwide transformation that is expected to come with the expansion of green industries.

Pickens’ financial worth is estimated at somewhere between $3 billion and $4 billion. He was a major donor to the 527 political group Swift Boat Veterans for Truth and reportedly gave $250,000 to help pay for President Bush’s second inaugural.

Forbes Magazine recently reported that Pickens’ plan could benefit several of his energy holdings, including BP Capital, a hedge fund that invests in renewable energy companies, Exco Resources, Clean Energy Fuels, Interoil, Westport Innovations and Mesa Power. Forbes notes that Mesa is set to spend $2 billion on 667 General Electric wind turbines as a part of the first phase of a four-stage effort to build the world’s largest wind farm in Texas.

Pickens has made a career of picking winners and losers. Maybe Pickens is wrong about the potential appeal of wind power in the West and the Great Plains. But maybe he’s right.

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