I’m two years late in finishing Superpower: One Man’s Quest to Transform American Energy by Wall Street Journal reporter Russell Gold. Published in 2019, a friend in the energy business recommended it. He thought I’d enjoy reading about the importance of the Oklahoma Panhandle when it came to wind energy generation.
Having grown up in Guymon, a small town in the center of this 30-mile wide strip of No Man’s Land, I was very aware of the wind energy boom. In 2014, my father’s funeral procession from the United Methodist Church to the cemetery halted for 15 minutes as a freight train bearing car after car of massive turbine blades rolled through town. He was a lifelong Panhandle farmer born just outside town in 1918 and he had a hopeful faith in these massive wind turbines popping up on every field extending down into Texas. Most farmers felt the leases were a financial windfall. You lost very little farming footprint but gained a substantial annual lease payment. Five years later, with a hodgepodge of companies now involved, some of those turbines are defunct with burned out generators or broken blades. This book explains why.
Gold masterfully weaves the the career of renewable energy pioneer Michael Skelly with the story of energy infrastructure history and transmission technology. Skelly, and his company, Clean Line Energy, created one of the most ambitious, privately-funded electric infrastructure projects in the country which both succeeded and failed on a number of levels. The idea was to generate massive amounts of electricity in western Oklahoma and Texas, then move it via DC transmission lines east. Along the way, the barriers they faced are lessons in competing state and federal politics and investor interests.
If anything, Superpower and Skelly give us a lesson in the road blocks facing large inter-state infrastructure projects, especially those with private investors that require a footprint over private land. Still, in order to accomplish any one of these substantial projects — projects that can change the future of our nation as much as anything Edison or Westinghouse did — we need leaders with courage and vision.
One of my favorite takeaways was Michael Skelly’s 5 States of Development. He used it describe the sort of major land deals and transmission projects he tackles, but it can apply to any sort of major project. (It certainly applies in the publishing world!)
Skelly’s 5 Stages of Development
- Euphoria — This is the early part of the project. The deal has gotten the green light and everyone is excited about the possibilities! You haven’t realized at all how hard it’s really going to be.
- Despair — Reality has set in. The setbacks are happening now. You’re starting to realize why no one has tried this before.
- The Search for the Guilty — Who is in charge? What is the barrier? Who is standing in your way? Who is to blame?
- The Punishment of the Innocent — Maybe heads are starting to roll. Are they the wrong ones? Are you starting to lose young, idealistic members of your team because they’re burned out or frustrated?
- Riches and Glory for the Uninvolved — If you succeed, everyone wants a part of it, even those who stood in the way. They make take the profit or the credit, but you know who made it happen. Skelly’s message? If you want to change the world, sharing the riches and glory is just part of the package.