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Book Review: Superpower, One Man’s Quest to Transform American Energy by Russell Gold, published by Simon and Schuster, 2019.

image credit: Book cover of Superpower by Russell Gold

Chasing the sunset west traveling the open road is a vison of natural beauty. Granted the view is cross-crossed with power lines and steel towers but we hardly notice becoming immune, overtime, to these man-made structures. Power lines and electrical towers, substations and utility poles, and a spaghetti mess of electrical lines running to each home represent how very much society runs on electricity and yet this significant dependency is the same system that was built more than 100 years ago.

Enter Michael Skelly, an infrastructure builder with a vision to modernize the grid not only to strengthen the connections but run electrons generated from renewable sources. Skelly’s vision was not a pipe dream and his pursuit to piece together the foundational modern grid is the premise of Superpower, One Man’s Quest to Transform American Energy (Simon and Schuster, 2019).  The author Russell Gold is senior energy reporter for the Wall Street Journal. See the interview of Russell Gold by Energy Central.

While zip lining through tree-tops in Costa Rica during my honeymoon, my wife and I marveled at how such large concrete foundations holding up ski-lift like systems could be assembled at such high altitudes. Guess what, Michael Skelly engineered this. Guess who located within the Oklahoma panhandle enough wind power generation to eventually supplant coal generation long before shutting down carbon spewing coal plants was fashionable. Correct – Michael Skelly. For residents of Houston, the reason you have so many protected bike lanes was again, you guessed it thanks to Michael Skelly, an avid cyclist who petitioned the car friendly city to protect and expand bike lanes.

The author Russel Gold gets the reader rooting for Michael Skelly. He is an example of a once in a generation superhero without the cape and tights. Although he did not reach the same name recognition as Elon Musk or Steve Jobs, he sure deserves some credit. No one seemed interested in listening when he raised the volume on the need to build a new national grid and transform the energy supply.

Michael Skelly made a small fortune as an early developer of wind farms. He served as the chief development officer in a company owned by former oilmen who understood energy and rolled snake eyes on the acceptance of buyers desiring clean, plentiful, and cheap wind power. As an employee, his company developed and sold wind projects all over the United States. The company was eventually purchased by a larger European energy developer for a reported $1 billion. Before finding his next moonshot, he meandered for a bit including a failed stint to win a seat in Congress as a Democrat in a heavily Republican Texas district. Skelly eventually found something bigger than a moonshot, and to his failure.

FDR had the New Deal. Eisenhower had the National Highway System. The missing ingredients in his nearly ten-year quest to modernize the transmission system was the lack of federal attention and imperative under leaderships of both Obama and Trump administrations. No one wants a steel monstrosity in their backyard or worse driven away due to eminent domain. Yet, without national sacrifice we would still be driving on secondary roads and still working our way out of the depression. We tend to fault the federal government on most everything yet fail to recognize the critical role it plays to getting things done. Skelly brought the money, skills, know-how, and a proof of concept to the public. He was unable to deliver due to lack of adequate presidential leadership, legislative support, and will of the people.

Michael Skelly created his own pyrrhic victory. He could not convert the state of Arkansas to accept new transmission towers that would funnel electrical currents from windmills in Oklahoma to Tennessee and up and down the east coast. The current grid cannot support the overcapacity generated by electrons from wind. Oklahoma wind is as plentiful as Saudi oil, yet no pipes to deliver it.

At peak, Skelly had four major transmission projects in various stages of development around the country - funded by private capital “not costing the tax payer one red cent” – and ready to deliver clean, reliable, and resilient energy to meet the needs of millions of households, and hasten the closure of coal and gas plants.

What he painfully learned as time dragged on is that our energy policy is fragmented and driven far more on a state level. Standardizations do not exist in technology or in policy. As we know, state politics can get ugly and energy policy pins one state against the next. Skelly’s dream with Clean Line was for financial profit but also driven for those who will someday inherit the earth. Clean Line, a future developer of a new, modern, and desperately needed transmission system would fall far short of its goal.

Today, in its wake are smaller attempts to upgrade and add new transmission lines closer to where the clean energy generation is located, ala Michael Skelly. The unsettling reality that Russell Gold brings to light in Superpower is that state-level decisions are not always in the best interest of the country or the state affected. In the case of Michael Skelly, the second mouse did get the cheese. 

We need national leadership and accept national sacrifice or we will be chasing more than just pretty sunsets. Russell Gold’s message in Superpower is worth the weight of his surname.

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Matt Chester's picture
Matt Chester on Dec 3, 2019 10:38 pm GMT

FDR had the New Deal. Eisenhower had the National Highway System. The missing ingredients in his nearly ten-year quest to modernize the transmission system was the lack of federal attention and imperative under leaderships of both Obama and Trump administrations. 

It's a really interesting comparison-- I think virtually no one would question the value and necessity of the highway systems today, but presumably they were installed at a time when it was probably easier to get the necessary policies/permissions passed to do so. But in today's world I think NIMBYism is more in play, land is scarcer and more valuable, and there's more of a sense of...I'd almost say entitlement? Entitlement to not be bothered by the grid upgrades? If the tech were available back in the Eisenhower days, would we have upgraded grid? If the tech for the highways weren't available until now, would the process to get them up and running been more difficult?

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