The Master Of Wind

If Jim Dehlsen ever needs to remind himself why, at 67, he's still trying to save the world, all he has to do is glance outside his window. The offices of his three-year-old firm, Clipper Windpower, look across California's tranquil Santa Barbara Channel and, in the distance, to the remote marine sanctuary of Santa Cruz Island. Marring that view are eight oil rigs jutting into the ocean mist. In 1969 a well underneath one platform ruptured, releasing 200,000 gallons of crude into the harbor, coating beaches and killing thousands of birds. Today the oil rigs represent to Dehlsen America's dependence on fossil fuels. "We're not only depleting those resources but reaching the limits of what the planet can absorb, in terms of emissions," he says. "And that is clearing the way for the return of wind power."

Not long ago wind power was the domain of fringe scientists and environmentalists. In the 1970s the idea of harvesting the wind's kinetic energy and converting it into electrons was impractical: the first rickety, garage-built turbines often self-destructed in storms. The industry grew in the '80s and '90s, but wind was still too costly, generating power at more than 10 cents per kilowatt hour, versus less than five cents for coal and other fossil fuels. Even today, wind power feeds less than half of 1 percent of America's ravenous energy appetite, and about 5 percent of Germany's and Spain's.

But the industry is maturing and growing quickly--and is beginning to find its place as one viable element in the energy puzzle. Dehlsen is one of its pioneers. His first wind company, Zond--founded in 1980 and sold to Enron in 1997--was synonymous with many early breakthroughs. The firm was the first to add wind energy to the California electricity grid and to bring scientific rigor to the locating of wind farms and the development of wind turbines. In recent years much bigger companies like General Electric, which bought what was left of Zond after Enron imploded, have entered the field. With rapidly improving technology and major corporate muscle behind wind power, costs are falling: wind contracts now average three cents per kilowatt hour (with tax subsi-dies), cheaper than coal and comparable to natural gas and oil. Because the wind is uncontrolled--it doesn't always blow--the challenge is to drive costs down further. Still, says Bob Thresher of the Department of Energy's National Renewable Energy Lab, "wind is the first renewable technology that is very nearly competitive in the market for bulk power generation."

For his part, Dehlsen has returned to the fray with Clipper, which seeks to replay Zond's original game plan: broker new wind farms around the world and use the revenues to fund advancements in wind technology. Clipper is currently opening farms, such as Iowa's Flying Cloud, a 44-megawatt wind plant activated in July that will bring in a sizable piece of Clipper's $11.5 million in revenues this year. Later this year Clipper will unveil its own envelope-pushing turbine design. The C93 Liberty is a 2.5-megawatt turbine with a rotor span of 305 feet; it features a sophisticated mechanism to distribute the torque from high-speed winds among four onboard electricity generators. That, Dehl-sen boasts, will translate into the most efficient turbine in the industry, making wind power even more attractive when compared with new coal and natural-gas power plants. The new turbines are also optimized for use in moderate winds, which would allow wind farms to be located closer to transmission grids than they typically are today. GE and others are working on similar advances, including larger machines for offshore sites.

Politics, as much as innovation, will govern the future. While European governments heavily subsidize wind production, the United States still funnels far greater resources into tax breaks for oil companies, and has even recently allowed the wind-production tax credit to expire. (Dehlsen and others think Con-gress will eventually renew the wind tax credit.)

But Dehlsen thinks the key is increasing cost efficiency, so that the attraction of wind becomes irresistible. Dehlsen says the cost of wind needs to fall below three cents per kilowatt hour--without tax credits--to truly break society's addiction to fossil fuels. "It's still not there, but we're getting close," he says. He's trying to build on the $18 million he has already raised from investors, and to expand. He plans to open a wind farm in Oaxaca, Mexico, the largest in Latin America, and in 2006 Clipper will introduce a new turbine with retractable rotors, so that the size of the turbine can be altered to match the speed of the wind. (In low winds, longer blades are more productive.) As for the future of the planet, Dehlsen is less sanguine. He plies a visitor with tracts on dire climate trends and America's insatiable thirst for fossil fuels. The evidence, he says, is right outside his window.