discounted prices. You’d think that an entrepreneur who
is a proven innovator, adept at managing big projects and at
discerning what’s next, would be a magnet for capital. He
was—but only on the tilted terms that private equity players
and banks were ofering. “There was a big disconnect
between the bid and the ask, OK?” he says.
To hell with investors. Polsky poured a huge chunk of
his net worth, some $120 million, into the new venture. It was,
he understates, “a lot of money for me.” The gamble would
pay of spectacularly, but only after he devised a new plan.
Focusing on buying natural gas power plants didn’t make
sense anymore, not with the limited capital at his disposal.
Plus, with private equity suddenly on the hunt for the same
plants, the bargains became harder to fnd. “We had too much
discipline to win in those auctions,” says Murphy, the COO.
Where, then, could they invest? “In our hearts, we under-
stood that we are not fnancial players,” says Polsky, who still
speaks with an accent and, with his curly gray locks and
restless energy, could be Anthony Bourdain’s twin. “We are
developers. That’s our bread and butter. So we went through
a period of trying to fnd what’s good and best for us. We
needed to fnd out what would be our niche.”
When Invenergy built its frst wind farm, in 2003, wind
power in the U.S. totaled some 6,000 megawatts—about 7
percent of what it is now. “Nobody really took wind seriously,”
says Polsky. “I don’t know if we took it that seriously.” Back
then, says energy expert Kevin Knobloch, a senior fellow at
the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy, “the whole notion
of building a successful business plan around clean energy was
aspirational.” Polsky asked one of his guys to take a closer look
and make a recommendation. That’s how Invenergy wound up
being the low bid on a tiny, 27-megawatt demonstration
project for the Tennessee Valley Authority near Oak Ridge,
Tennessee. Ready or not, Polsky was in the wind business.
Not ready—Bufalo Mountain was a failure. Invenergy
underestimated the cost of building on a remote, hilly site with
no access roads, and overestimated the wind strength. “The
art of measuring the wind resource at the time was not nearly
as refned as it is now,” Polsky says. “We fnanced the project on
the basis of a forecast that never materialized.” Invenergy sunk
$40 million into Bufalo Mountain and lost $6 million.
Polsky insists it was money well spent. He could see now
where this sector was going, and was eager to apply lessons
learned. Invenergy’s next three projects—in Montana, Colo-
rado, and Idaho—combined were 10 times bigger than Bufalo
Mountain, and all three made money. During those early days,
production tax credits were key. Without the credits, wind
couldn’t compete, and whenever Congress let them expire,
the industry sufered, only to bounce back when they were
restored. Current legislation calls for a gradual phase out by
2020. This time, no one’s counting on another extension.
The credits have accomplished their goal. Total wind-
powered generating capacity has grown enormously since the
credits were introduced as part of the Energy Policy Act of
1992, and not just because there are so many more wind farms.
Development has spurred innovation, such that today’s best
turbines are one-third more efcient than their immediate
predecessors. According to the latest projections from the
U.S. Energy Information Agency, onshore wind energy plants
entering service in 2022 will generate cheaper electricity than
any other fuel source with the exception of geothermal, which
doesn’t have nearly the potential that wind does.
One more noteworthy fact about Wind Catcher: Polsky
already has an eager buyer lined up, two utilities owned by
American Electric Power. AEP, it so happens, is still the country’s largest coal-fred electricity generator. To Polsky, that’s a
clear sign that the market-driven shift to a low-carbon economy is unstoppable—despite lapsing tax credits, America’s
pending withdrawal from the Paris climate agreement, and
whatever Big Coal, Big Oil, and the nuclear power industry
have to say. “We have reached a tipping point,” says Polsky.
“We feel we are simply on the right side of history, rather than
the right side of ideology.”
DAVID WHITFORD is an Inc. editor-at-large.
REALLY BIG BATTERIES
Because the wind doesn’t always blo w and
the sun insists on setting, energy storage
is a critical component for renewables. These
batteries can hold up to 31. 5 megawatts. –
Within four years, U. S. energy-storage capacity is expected to
increase eightfold, to 5. 9 gigawatts,
according to GTM Research.