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Banking on the Wind

Even in states that produce fossil fuels, Americans are figuring that prosperity will be tied to finding greener energy resources.


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Tom Arrandale

Tom Arrandale is a GOVERNING correspondent.

Based on a lifetime of experience -- from a Rocky Mountain oilfield roughneck to a founder of a Billings drilling and oil production company -- Montana state Senator Roy Brown understands why Republican crowds in this fall's political campaign chanted "drill, baby, drill." Drilling for oil and mining coal remains, he says, the quickest way to create high-paying jobs for the state's hard-pressed High Plains towns. A big drilling rig runs 24 hours a day, paying top wages to three shifts composed of five to six workers. "If you drill a 15,000-foot well in eastern Montana," Brown says, "especially if you're doing horizontal drilling, that's a multimillion-dollar operation."

Yet this year, Roy Brown's oil-patch know-how didn't help in his long-shot run for governor. Instead, Brian Schweitzer, the exuberant Democratic incumbent, exulted over five big new turbine farms and his grand plans for reaping renewable electric power in the fifth-windiest state in the country.

Schweitzer cruised to reelection. The outcome suggested that even in states that produce fossil fuels, Americans are figuring that prosperity will be tied to finding new -- and greener -- energy resources. Moreover, the new administration in Washington is likely to launch an all-out national campaign to retool the country to run on alternative power -- to cut greenhouse gas emissions and free the nation from crude-oil imports. The payoffs include millions of good-paying "green jobs" that will help perfect innovative technologies and rebuild the nation's energy system.

A Center for American Progress study calculates that a quick $100 billion investment in a green economic-recovery program would put 2 million engineers, machinists, construction workers, truck drivers and other affiliated workers into jobs around the country in the next two years. The Apollo Alliance, a coalition of business, labor and environmental groups, estimates that a $300 billion investment over 10 years will create 3.3 million jobs in producing renewable energy, manufacturing hybrid cars and efficient appliances, refurbishing buildings and replacing infrastructure. The U.S. Conference of Mayors forecasts 4.2 million green jobs by 2038 and suggests that cities and towns around the country should get ready to compete for shares of the green-energy pie.

The race for the green is already underway in the heartland, where wind turbines have been sprouting on windswept terrain from the Dakotas south to the Rio Grande. Texas now ranks behind only Germany, India and Spain in wind capacity. Newton, Iowa, replaced a shuttered Maytag factory this fall with a wind-turbine blade plant that is hiring 500 workers. By 2010, the Danish-based company Vestas will employ 2,500 at four Colorado turbine-manufacturing locations. "The baton," says Colorado Governor Bill Ritter, "is being handed off to a 21st-century industry: renewables."

Other Westerners have doubts about the hoopla. Roy Brown points out that half a dozen workers are all that are needed to keep Montana's biggest wind farm's turbines running. He's skeptical that a German company will follow through on a planned turbine plant that Schweitzer says will employ as many as 600 workers in the faded mining town of Butte. The Great Plains lack enough transmission lines to carry wind-generated power to populous energy markets, and they'll likely need additional backup capacity from coal and natural gas to serve customers when the wind quits blowing during the night.

This fall, however, Schweitzer's administration approved a new high-voltage line to carry power across the Canadian border. It will run from big new Montana wind farms to Alberta's booming tar sands oil projects. Governors in most other energy producing states are planning to blend renewables into their resource-production mix with conventional oil and gas and clean-coal projects. Schweitzer and others also signed on with regional greenhouse-gas cap-and-trade agreements. These state-negotiated agreements have done the groundwork for a national program to discourage fossil fuel burning by setting a price on carbon emissions.

A federal program will be tough political going. Oil companies, electric utilities and both industrial and residential customers will have a lot to lose, and it will take bold and imaginative governing to persuade the country it's time to start the transition to a greener -- and more stable -- economy. Eventually oil wells go dry and coal fields play out, Schweitzer likes to point out, but "I'll promise you, we will not run out of wind in eastern Montana.


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