It shouldn't be surprising to see Tom Carnahan canvassing northwest Missouri in a pickup, shaking hands and talking up farmers about energy policy and revitalizing the rural economy.
After all, he's the son of late Gov. Mel Carnahan and ex-U.S. Sen. Jean Carnahan. Older brother Russ is a U.S. congressman. Sister Robin is secretary of state. Campaigning is in his DNA.
But this Carnahan isn't running for office. He's crusading for another cause: the wind.
Carnahan is the founder of Wind Capital Group LLC, which last month celebrated the completion of the Bluegrass Ridge wind farm in northwest Missouri — the state's first. The company is developing three more wind projects in the same area and pursuing a dozen projects in seven states outside of Missouri. Advertisement
"As recently as three or four years ago, there was a view that there weren't any good wind sites in this state," said Jim Jura, general manager of Springfield, Mo.-based Associated Electric Cooperative, which agreed to buy the electricity produced from the Wind Capital projects for the next 20 years. "Lo and behold, Tom went out and he had a vision."
While the wind energy business faces challenges, Carnahan's timing couldn't be better. Demand for renewable energy is growing. Anything "green" is hot because of increasing concern about global warming and a desire for home-grown energy that reduces the nation's dependence on foreign petroleum.
"It's good that people are becoming aware of their impact on the environment," Carnahan said during an interview at his downtown St. Louis offices. "I don't see this as a fad. We are creating real energy, real electrons, that are powering real homes every single day."
AN IDEA IS BORN
Carnahan, 38, plunged into the business without an engineering degree or an energy background. In fact, three years ago, he was still practicing law — something he knew wasn't his future.
"I never felt like the law practice was where I fit in," he said. "I was always looking for opportunities to get distracted."
In 2005, he left his practice, Carnahan & Garvin LLC, to form a new venture — the Carnahan Group. His new company had a name, but no business plan.
Carnahan had been fascinated by renewable energy, recalling a family dinner table conversation after his dad took him to a Missouri ethanol plant while he was governor.
But it wasn't until he was scanning the American Wind Energy Association website one night in late 2004 that the seeds for Wind Capital were sewn.
It happened when he saw a color-coded U.S. map showing existing and planned wind energy projects.
"It was so stark because the states were colored in if there was a wind project, and if there wasn't one it was just white," Carnahan said. "Literally every state that surrounded Missouri was colored in, and Missouri just stood out like a sore thumb.
Carnahan dove in to find out why Missouri didn't have a wind farm and what was needed to build one. He attended industry conferences and solicited advice from anyone who would talk to him. Some of it he didn't want to hear.
In particular, there was a conversation with an energy executive who's among the biggest players in the wind energy business. He acknowledged Carnahan's gumption and told him that he'd never get a project done in Missouri.
Besides a perception that Missouri wasn't very windy, it traditionally has had among the lowest electric rates in the United States, and there's no mandate requiring utilities to invest in renewable energy.
"I didn't know what I was doing wasn't possible," Carnahan said. "But it also meant that we didn't have a lot of competition."
Carnahan said others would roll their eyes when he explained his career change — to the point that he avoided the subject.
"I'd say, 'I'm building a wind farm,' and people just immediately wrote me off as nuts," he said. "It seemed far-fetched. It got to the point where I just told people I was still practicing law."
Wind Capital was formed in January 2005. Carnahan began developing his first project that spring, and initially did much of the work himself.
He arranged leases with farmers, negotiated power agreements and transmission issues.
What Carnahan lacked in technical knowledge he made up for with his people skills, Jura said.
"A key to putting these deals together is working with the landowners in a constructive way, and he mastered that," he said. "I knew his dad, and he's a lot like him in that way."
Today, with 11 employees split between offices in St. Louis and Madison, Wis., Carnahan is in position to delegate more of the responsibility. But he still cherishes his role as that of developer and deal maker, going on the road to sell his projects.
"That's the fun part," he said. "To drive around in a pickup on some guy's farm looking at different spots and getting to call it work."
John McKinnon, who raises cattle on 80 acres just northeast of King City, was among the farmers who signed a 25-year agreement to put one of the massive turbines on his property.
He instantly hit it off with Carnahan.
"Farmers are the biggest skeptics there are," McKinnon said. "But he was honest. He laid everything out. He's a suit and tie, but he can put on a denim shirt with the best of us."
Carnahan grew up on a farm just outside Rolla. He attended William Jewel College and then went to the University of Missouri Law School in Columbia.
Robin Carnahan, who's been Missouri secretary of state since 2005, said people skills have always been a strength for her brother.
"Tom was the youngest in the family, so he's always been very social and been able to get along with a wide range of people," she said.
TILTING AT WINDMILLS
Scattered throughout Carnahan's new headquarters at 1010 Market Street are tiny plastic models of the 300-foot-tall turbines rising from the northwest Missouri plains.
The tan walls of his corner office are bare, for now. Photos and prints sit stacked on the floor. Across from his desk is a tiny sculpture of Don Quixote — a gift from his mom.
But Carnahan isn't tilting at windmills, he's building more of them.
Wind Capital's second and third wind projects, Cow Branch and Conception, each will be able to generate about 50 megawatts when they go into service later this year.
A fourth, smaller project, Loess Hills, is just 5 megawatts, but it's enough to offset all of the energy use in the tiny town of Rock Port, about an hour north of Kansas City.
The projects are part of the estimated 3,000 megawatts of wind power generating capacity that will be installed nationwide this year — enough to power about 750,000 homes, according to the American Wind Energy Association.
But with the rapid growth comes challenges, including a shortage of turbines and stiff local opposition to some projects in other parts of the country.
The capital costs of wind farms also are expensive relative to the amount of energy produced. But while costs for fossil fuels such as coal and natural gas have escalated sharply in recent years, wind is free.
And the economics could become more compelling if Congress limits emissions of carbon dioxide.
"We can't compete on price head-to-head with coal plants that were built 20 years ago," Carnahan said.
"But if policymakers decide that they want to add a cost to coal production in the form of a carbon tax, it certainly does make wind energy a lot more attractive."
ST. LOUIS POST-DISPATCH – 10/12/2007
Story By Jeffery Tomich
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