Terry Hudgens is a classic oilman: thick drawl, square jaw, engineering degree from the University of Houston, twenty-five years with Texaco in the oil patch, which ended with his running the company’s $5 billion-a-year natural gas business.
These days Hudgens lives in Portland, Oregon, epicenter of organic coffee and politically correct unshavenness. To hear him talk, you could think he is wearing Birkenstocks: Instead of the good-old-boy discourse of the petroleum industry, Hudgens now speaks about “the power of the wind” and the future of clean energy.
But this is not the story of a midlife crisis, a businessman gone groovy at age 55. Instead, Hudgens has brought his hard-nosed oil-patch logic to the frontiers of renewable energy. He is now CEO of PPM Energy, a subsidiary of ScottishPower and America’s second-largest and possibly fastest-growing wind power company. He got into wind for the same reason he got into oil–it’s a good way to make money.
“This is wind power on a grand scale,” says Hudgens. He is talking about projects like Maple Ridge Wind Farm, the biggest power plant of any sort built in New York during 2006. The farm’s 195 huge white wind turbines, with blades as long as jet wings perched atop tall steel towers, are spread across miles of ridgeline in Tug Hill, New York, catching steady airflow off the Great Lakes. On a good day this farm will produce 321 megawatts of power, as much as a midsize coal- or gas-fired plant.
The green future wasn’t supposed to look like this. In the environmental imagination of the 1960s and ’70s, the ecological ideal was something quaint, a village where every house had solar panels, a windmill and a vegetable garden where the lawn once soaked up pesticides. E.F. Schumacher told us that “small is beautiful,” and to this day many environmentalists see large centralized systems as inherently bad.
But the speed and magnitude of climate change dictate that we begin the transformation away from carbon-based fuels now–and on a very large scale. Only a few decades remain if we are to avoid cataclysmic runaway global warming and its attendant crises. Realistically, a green transformation will have to pivot on electricity and the existing electrical grid. At one end of the grid, zero-emission vehicles can be plugged in, while at the other end zero-emission power plants–most likely owned by large for-profit companies–can feed the system electricity.
Large utility-scale renewable energy offers important economies of scale. In Denmark industrial-scale wind farms already supply 20 percent of the country’s power; Germany and other European countries are close behind. The American Council on Renewable Energy estimates that with “consistent public policy” and enough investment, 70 percent of America’s energy consumption could be generated from renewable, carbon-free sources by 2025. Another government-supported study estimates that with radical efficiency efforts, renewable energy could supply all US electrical needs by 2030.
So, how have renewable utilities developed thus far? Who are the key players? How do they relate to the rest of the economy? What technologies work best? And what are the real economics of creating a green power grid?