Prevailing Winds

For decades, Big Energy blew off renewable energy as insignificant. Now the industry’s biggest players are racing to build wind farms — and cash in on the latest energy boom.

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If Ben Givens ever needs reassurance that his bosses at American Electric Power (AEP) — the country’s biggest generator of electricity and a leading coal-mining company — support his work to develop wind energy, all he has to do is whip out his company credit card. There on its face, pictured beside an image of belching smokestacks, is a cluster of huge, pinwheel-like turbines. “Pretty cool, huh?” says Givens, who operates the company’s three wind farms in Texas. “We’re finally hitting the big time!”

The credit card might seem like a public-relations ploy. But behind the green imagery is a remarkable corporate about-face: After decades of belittling wind as a puny and unreliable energy source, AEP and other major companies are scrambling to cash in on what is now the world’s fastest-growing source of electric power. Multinationals like Shell and General Electric are investing hundreds of millions of dollars in wind operations from Washington state to Massachusetts. Last year, energy firms spent a record $1.7 billion on wind projects in the United States, increasing wind power capacity by some 60 percent, to more than 4,200 megawatts — enough to provide electricity to 1 million homes. (By comparison, solar photovoltaic cells currently supply about 200 megawatts.) “The big players who didn’t give a hoot about this a few years ago are finally getting in the game,” says Ronald Lehr, a former Colorado public utilities commissioner and a wind energy expert. “Which is precisely what’s needed to make wind a viable energy source.”

Even with the recent growth, wind power fills only about one-half of 1 percent of the country’s total electricity demand; the European Union, with a total population only about one-third larger than the United States, has four times as much wind power capacity and plans to obtain 22 percent of its electricity supply from renewables by 2010. Yet a growing number of industry experts say it is the United States — with its huge electricity market and its vast, windswept plains and blustery coastlines — that has the greatest potential to reap power and profit from wind. And perhaps nowhere is the trend more apparent than in Texas — home to many of the nation’s oil companies and their longtime champion, George W. Bush.

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