?1?? No Man’s Land
When Michael Skelly first visited the Oklahoma panhandle in the summer of 2009, he had a good idea of what he would find. He expected lots of sunbaked and windswept open space, and he wasn’t disappointed.
It was a hot day as he drove west from Guymon, the largest town in the panhandle, into a landscape that was pancake flat and dry. There were only a handful of trees. For mile after mile, the two-lane Highway 3 ran straight as a matchstick. Every mile, a dirt road intersected the highway and headed off toward the horizon at a 90-degree angle. The land was a giant grid containing squares of corn, milo, and grassland. There were few houses, one every mile or so. Half had been abandoned decades ago by homesteaders who gave up their fight with the elements.
Skelly didn’t want to fight the elements. He wanted to harness them.
Gazing at the landscape, Skelly grew excited. He knew no place is perfect for energy development. But the panhandle was quite good. There was lots of room to build, thousands of square miles. Local
landowners were supportive. No endangered animals lived there. You could build renewable energy here, he thought, on a scale that could change the country and maybe even the planet.
The wind rarely stopped blowing. A bestselling midcentury travelogue joked that homes here had a “crowbar hole . . . designed to check on the weather. You shove a crowbar through the hole: if it bends, the wind velocity outside is normal; if the bar breaks off, ‘it is better to stay in the house.’?” A few years earlier, Skelly’s former employer, a wind farm developer, had erected a couple of needle-thin meteorological towers with instruments to measure wind speed. They were the tallest structures for miles around. The results were striking. The winds were strong and surprisingly steady. The data collected was good enough to go to a bank and get financing for a wind farm, but Skelly had never done anything about it. The region was too remote. Sure you could generate a lot of power, but then what? Where would it go?
The sun was also relentless. On the giant interconnected power grid that runs from Nova Scotia, along Canada’s Atlantic coast, down to Miami and across to Montana, the sunlight is strongest in the Oklahoma panhandle and an adjacent area in New Mexico. If you put identical solar panels in the westernmost counties of Oklahoma and in Miami, you would generate one-third more electricity in the panhandle—and nearly twice as much as in Cleveland, Pittsburgh, or Albany. In the 1970s, the Guymon Daily Herald ran a box on the top left of the paper every day that proclaimed the city was the “Sunshine Capital of the World.”
At the time, Skelly was in his late forties. He was the human equivalent of a meteorological tower: slightly more than six feet tall and fit from years of biking to and from his office in Houston. Skelly had bushy hair and wore browline glasses. He was a departure from an earlier generation of wind farm builders and solar panel enthusiasts who were more interested in creating sustainable energy than sustainable businesses. Skelly wanted to make a profit, because profits would attract new investors and money into renewable energy.
Traveling around the panhandle, Skelly allowed himself to think big. He envisioned an energy development unlike anything ever built before. It would be enormous, and would generate power at a cost lower than anything that had come before it. And because the sun and the wind were so steady, the power would be available, on average, nearly twenty hours a day.
The panhandle had a lot to recommend it as a place to build renewables. But there was a big drawback. No one nearby needed the power. Skelly planned to solve this problem by building a long extension cord: one end would be plugged into the panhandle; the other end would reach east until it crossed the Mississippi River. It would be the first of a set of transmission lines he wanted to build that would carry current hundreds of miles from one state to the next, stitching together the country and delivering low-cost, carbon-free electricity. He would upgrade the existing power grid, a century-old engineering marvel that tied together power plants burning a lot of fossil fuels. “It’s an environmentally reckless business model in need of reimagining,” he thought. Skelly dreamed of a new grid that could power modern society without contributing to the darkening cloak of carbon dioxide around the Earth.
Of course, such a grid would cost billions and billions of dollars. Skelly wanted to show it could be done, and done profitably. It was ambitious but necessary, he figured. “If we don’t do it,” he thought to himself, “who is going to do it?”
A year before Skelly’s visit, Carroll Beaman had also concluded the Oklahoma panhandle was a good place to erect wind turbines.
He was born on an infamous day in the region’s history. “I came in with a storm,” he said. Beginning in early 1932, enormous dust storms blew across the Oklahoma panhandle and neighboring states. The wind scooped up millions of tons of topsoil that homesteaders had plowed up in their misguided effort to turn well-adapted grassland
into fields of wheat. After a few years of this new agricultural practice, there were no more roots to hold the soil in place. A strong wind would create giant moving clouds called “dusters.” The region became known as the Dust Bowl. It was one of the worst man-made environmental disasters ever, and it led to mass migration.
The first giant dust storm was on January 21, 1932. Beaman was born that day. His parents were homesteaders, he said, and “just as poor as anybody else.” His mother was born in a dugout her parents had carved into the dirt. His grandfather raised crops and owned a water-drilling rig. The contraption would bore fifty feet, sometimes deeper, into the red dirt until it found water. On top of the borehole, the farmer would install a windmill, an Aermotor or a Dempster, to pump up water for cattle or crops.
“Dusters” are now part of history. New farming practices and countywide soil conservation districts ended the era of stripping away prairie grasses. Human activity had destroyed the ecosystem, but in time humans restored a semblance of balance. The weather had once brought misery to the panhandle. Now Beaman wanted the wind to bring investment and steady checks.
He split his time between a home in Amarillo, Texas, a two-hour drive to the south, and a second house in Guymon. He came to the panhandle in Oklahoma as much as possible to tend his garden of cucumbers, asparagus, and tomatoes next to his family’s homestead nearby. One day in 2008, driving north from Amarillo, he noticed large cranes assembling gently tapered steel tubes. On the return trip, three long aerodynamic blades had been attached to a large box on the top of each tube. It was the first time he had seen a modern wind turbine. He thought the machines looked solid and impressive. Here on the southern edge of the Great Plains, grain elevators seemed as tall as skyscrapers. But these wind turbines were twenty and thirty stories tall; they dwarfed the grain elevators. They were nothing like those twenty-foot windmills dotting the region that were rusting in place. The new ones were elegant machines—two rows of eight turbines
each eventually straddling the rural road. His grandfather’s windmills once pumped water up from the aquifer; these new turbines were for electricity—wind turned the blades, spinning magnets that generated currents to be fed into the grid.
“We have some of the best winds in the world,” he thought on a drive home to Amarillo. “There is no reason this area wouldn’t be a prime candidate for development.”
While in his car, Beaman also ran some numbers in his head. “I saw these groups of eight turbines. They are on a quarter section, half section,” he said. Sections are 640 acres of land, one mile wide and one mile long. “I saw those and thought, hell, if eight turbines are economic, then what I can do is put eight turbines on every half section I got, tie it into an electric line, and that is all there is to it.”
Years later, he chuckled. “I found out there was a little more to it.”
After seeing the new turbines, Beaman drove around the counties in Oklahoma’s panhandle, talking to his neighbors about building a wind farm. He knew most of the people who lived in the panhandle and had known them for decades. He urged them to sign energy leases. They would pool their land and use their size to get the best bargain.
The western three counties that form the state’s thin western appendage are called No Man’s Land. Between 1850 and 1890, no state claimed the region. It was an empty spot on the map and remains sparsely populated. In the 1990s, a giant pork conglomerate moved in and built a slaughterhouse on the outskirts of Guymon. About twenty thousand pigs arrive in trucks every day from barns scattered across the panhandle and neighboring states. By one estimate, there are sixty-two hogs for every person in the counties that make up the panhandle.
After attending college in Colorado, Beaman ended up working for Exxon overseas in the 1950s and 1960s. He returned to Amarillo to run a small oil and gas company, socializing with the city’s business and civic leaders including fellow oilman T. Boone Pickens. One of the
elementary rules of oil exploration is that when you make a discovery, lease up as much surrounding land as possible. Beaman took the same approach to wind.
Driving around the flatlands, he discovered that he didn’t have to make a hard pitch to get his neighbors to sign up. One rancher “signed the lease, never read it,” he said. “He trusts me.” People understood that the wind turbines wouldn’t interfere with farming. The turbine’s concrete bases could be put in the corner of each grid square, just like the hog barns. Beaman promised his neighbors payments down the road when deals were made.
Out in No Man’s Land, where the thin Oklahoma panhandle nestles up against Kansas, Colorado, Texas, and New Mexico, Beaman began to assemble commitments from his neighbors. Beaman, who often wore a cream-colored cowboy hat and oversized belt buckle won in a cutting horse riding competition, called the company CimTexCo, for Cimarron and Texas Counties. Beaman soon learned that there was a reason those first wind turbines he had seen on his drive from Amarillo were located where they were. They were close to power lines. To make CimTexCo viable, he needed a power line. He put in a proposal with the local grid operator to extend a transmission line west into the panhandle. The Southwest Power Pool assigned it to its priority project list. It was number 13, so far down the list he doubted he would be alive to see it completed.
His frustration was building when a mutual acquaintance introduced him to Michael Skelly, and he learned about the interstate extension cord idea. They were working on complementary plans.
Beaman realized his best chance to bring investment to the panhandle was if Skelly’s transmission line could be built. Beaman increased his outreach and soon had 100,000 acres committed to CimTexCo. This would eventually grow to more than 300,000 acres—about 500 square miles. It was enough land for strings of turbines to extend for sixty miles, east to west. It was enough to build the largest renewable energy project on the continent.
One day he was at his lawyers’ offices, working on the paperwork for CimTexCo wind leases. He marveled at the size of the project, and so did an out-of-town lawyer. “None of us have ever dealt with anything of this big a scale or magnitude. It is uncharted territory for us all,” Beaman said.
But without Skelly’s extension cord, none of it made a lick of financial or engineering sense. Beaman needed the line. “I am banking on it,” he said.
If Skelly could build a transmission line from Oklahoma to Memphis, Tennessee, the panhandle would sprout two thousand wind turbines and tens of thousands of solar panels. The electricity generated would flow into a substation near Guymon and then on to a high-voltage direct current express line headed east. It would drop off some power in Arkansas, and take the rest over the Mississippi River into Memphis. From there, the flow of electrons that make up an electrical current would be on a grid operated by the Tennessee Valley Authority. In the 1970s, the federal agency planned to build more than a dozen nuclear power plants in the valley. The TVA built the wires but then scrapped plans for the nukes. If Skelly could get the power across the Mississippi into Memphis, he could move the power north, east, and south on this oversized network. Atlanta, Charlotte, even Washington, D.C., and from there Philadelphia and New York would be within reach.
It was such a bold idea that some people in the Oklahoma panhandle had trouble believing it. Jay Lobit’s initial reaction was that it sounded preposterous. He had returned to the area in 2005 to build wind farms because of his recollection of working as a paperboy for the afternoon newspaper and getting dragged across Main Street in Guymon when a gust of wind turned his canvas delivery bag into a sail. A private line all the way to Memphis? “Yeah, right,” he thought. But he was curious. “All right,” Lobit told a friend who wanted to
introduce him to Skelly. “I’ll go meet this nut.” He wanted to see what kind of masochist would attempt such a project.
They met at a conference in Oklahoma City in 2009 and chatted for an hour. Skelly was about twenty years younger and a head taller than Lobit. Skelly spoke passionately about his idea. Lobit felt himself getting drawn in. Lobit still believed an Oklahoma-to-Tennessee power line was insane, but if anyone could pull it off, Lobit was prepared to bet on this goofy but earnest guy. Skelly had a “grand vision,” Lobit said, that would boost renewable energy and the fortunes of renewable energy developers like him. “He talked about his plan and what it was going to be. I was happy to have any kind of a plan,” Lobit remembered.
Skelly wanted to permit and build a 720-mile electricity expressway through the middle of the country, bypassing a snarl of local and often congested power lines. His proposed power line had the capacity to carry 4,000 megawatts of wind and solar power. This was enough to carry electricity from Beaman’s CimTexCo, the wind company Lobit had cofounded, and others. Adding them all up, the panhandle wind and solar farms would be one of the largest power-generating projects in the United States. It would trail only the gigantic Grand Coulee Dam, which sends the gravity-propelled Columbia River through twenty-five generators and produces up to 6,809 megawatts, and the Palo Verde nuclear power plant west of Phoenix, which has a peak output of 4,219 megawatts. Here’s another way of understanding the scale of Skelly’s vision: One of the United States’ leading rooftop solar panel companies, SolarCity, was founded in 2006 and became part of Tesla and Elon Musk’s empire a decade later. As of early 2018, it had installed 3,310 megawatts. Skelly’s Oklahoma panhandle renewable energy complex would be bigger and produce power at a much lower cost.
Capacity can be misleading. A typical car speedometer might say it is capable of going 140 miles per hour, but most cars never go near that maximum speed. A car’s top speed is a bit like installed capacity for a wind or solar farm. A better way to think about power plants
is in how many megawatt hours are produced, comparable to a car’s average speed. By that measure, the three largest power plants in the United States are all nuclear facilities: Palo Verde in Arizona, Browns Ferry on the Tennessee River in northern Alabama, and Oconee in the northwest corner of South Carolina.
Right behind them would be the proposed cluster of wind and solar farms in the Oklahoma panhandle, churning out electricity that travels on the new grid to faraway cities.
Skelly’s plan was ambitious. But the reward at the end of the line was significant: it was a huge step forward in a transition to a cleaner energy future. It would also be a big payday. Changing the electricity system would be enormously expensive. But if Skelly could set the precedent with a moneymaking Oklahoma-to-Tennessee line, it would be worth the headache.
Skelly left No Man’s Land in the summer of 2009 with a single-minded focus. The counties were big and windy and sunny, and there were developers champing at the bit. A self-described “infrastructure nerd,” Skelly wanted to build a massive energy project that was both inspirational and profitable. This was how the energy transition would happen, he figured. One step at a time and one transmission line at a time.
Over the next few years, Skelly didn’t get involved in Twitter feuds or policy battles. He wasn’t interested in wasting energy fighting over energy. Why bother, he would ask with a shrug. He much preferred to use his time developing energy projects.
For Skelly, the energy transition wasn’t an idea to be debated. It was something that needed to be financed, planned, and built. The longer it took to rewire the country, the more heat-trapping gases would be released into the atmosphere. That meant more climatic changes that could make the Oklahoma Dust Bowl pale in comparison. The world was getting more dangerous. Storms were stronger and droughts more persistent. All this was happening and the global mean
temperature had only risen by less than one degree Celsius. What would happen if temperatures rose by two degrees? Or three?
Skelly had spent a lot of time in the year before his visit to Oklahoma reading up on climate change and thinking about it. He found it depressing and distracting. He much preferred doing something about it. The transmission line would be extraordinarily difficult, but he thought it was a good way to spend a few years. It was challenging, but worthwhile.
“This is the business of overcoming obstacles,” Skelly said. “It is not like you just wake up in the morning and all of a sudden, you know, the heavens part and you get to go build the project.” Skelly set out to clear a path through the obstacles.