Book Review from the Journal: Superpower, Russell Gold

This week, we are featuring a book review from Volume 45 of the Carolina Planning Journal. Olivia Corriere reflects on Russell Gold’s Superpower. Superpower tells the story of Michael Skelly and his rise as one of the leading figures in the world of renewable energy.

Book Review by Olivia Corriere

Superpower follows quirky, optimistic businessman Michael Skelly from his beginnings installing rainforest canopy gondolas in Costa Rica to his stardom in the wind energy industry. Author Russell Gold tells Skelly’s professional story in a narrative style that traces the rise and evolution of renewables in the United States —a story about the electric grid that we all depend on.

In the early 2000s, technology enthusiasts and environmentalists drove the wind energy industry. When the Zilkha family, wealthy from their banking business, sold their oil company, they started Zilkha Renewable Energy the next day sensing industry growth on the horizon. They first crossed paths with Skelly when they acquired International Wind, for whom he was working at the time. It was a perfect match; the Zilkhas appreciated his ambition, his ability to connect with people, and his outright zeal for renewables.

All at once, Skelly and Zilkha Renewable shook things up in the wind industry with deep pockets and big oil business experience. As Gold put it, “Hippies were no longer running the wind business. Green pieties had been replaced by accountants’ green eyeshades” (p. 66). Skelly successfully built massive wind projects for Zilkha Renewable, like the 423.45MW Blue Canyon wind project in Slick Hills, Oklahoma. Gold decorates what could be a dry corporate growth story with anecdotes about Skelly’s positive attitude, daily bike commutes, and eclectic business and negotiation strategies. Take for example his suggestion to Michael Zilkha to wear his pink bike shorts and cycling shoes during a momentous finance meeting.

When Zilkha Renewable sold to Goldman Sachs in late 2004, Skelly took a break from the energy industry to run as a pro-energy, moderate Democrat in the Seventh Congressional District of Texas. Spoiler alert—it is challenging to beat out an incumbent Republican in the Lone Star State. After trying his hand at politics, Skelly catapulted back into energy development, co-founding his own new company: Clean Line Energy Partners would tackle the archaic 20th-century transmission lines.

The American grid transports electricity with a network of transmission lines; it accepts electricity from generators, distributes electricity through transmission lines, and sells it at wholesale to utilities. Because these transmission lines have limited capacities, congestion can become an issue when new generators (renewable or otherwise) come online, thus making the electricity more expensive and increasing strain on the infrastructure. 

His new company would build transmission lines from energy resources to load centers. It would buy electricity from generators like wind farms, transmit it to load centers, and sell it to utilities at a premium. These enormous infrastructure projects are expensive, require long-term investors, and involve lengthy stakeholder processes. Government usually leads these types of development projects because the electric grid is functionally public, interstate infrastructure. Skelly was disrupting the status quo completely, and it was not easy. There were questions and heated debate about landowner rights, eminent domain, environmental implications, and economic impacts.

Gold closely examines Skelly’s Oklahoma-to-Memphis 720-mile, 4,000 MW transmission line, the Plains & Eastern Line. Arkansas political representatives were livid that the transmission line passed through the state without providing clear local benefits. Some posed questions about whether Clean Line even had the authority to build transmission lines since it was not a utility. Politicians waxed poetic about the threats of the line, turning their constituents against it, often by wielding false information. Landowners were terrified that they might lose their land. Notorious anti-transmission line mobilizer Julie Morton put it simply, “To us, it looks like Big Oil is moving over and here comes Big Renewable” (p. 181).

Skelly went back and forth for years with individual landowners, politicians who blacklisted Clean Line projects, and potential electricity buyers—especially the Tennessee Valley Authority, a regional transmission organization (RTO) in Tennessee. Meanwhile, Arkansas Senators John Boozman and Tom Cotton introduced legislation that explicitly targeted the Plains & Eastern Line. All the while, Skelly was holding dozens of stakeholder meetings, offering the cheapest electricity on the market, and offering cash per mile to counties where the line would be built. This process is a long, administratively complex, technically difficult, and politically-contentious one.

Superpower clarifies several complex issues for the reader: the limitations of existing transmission lines, the politics that create roadblocks for renewables, the intense difficulty of comprehensive stakeholder engagement, and how energy policies and legislation affect developers in practice. Gold condenses and explains complex policies like the Public Utility Regulatory Policies Act and the Energy Policy Act, making them understandable for the reader. These policies regulate and steer energy in the U.S., so it is critical to understand them as climate change accelerates and as the American fuel portfolio comes into focus as a major talking point in the 2020 presidential race. 

Gold chose the right character to carry the story of the renewables industry. Skelly is an interesting, likable person, and by the end, I was rooting for him. The anecdotes that Gold tells about Skelly and his business style are fun to read and add color to the picture of the renewables industry as a high stakes industry run by nimble, driven people. 

Gold wrote this book to get into the nitty gritty of what it would take to build a new energy infrastructure. He wanted to write about the experience of working in energy, especially as the sector grows and there is more demand for workers in the industry. As he hoped it would, Superpower will appeal to people interested in challenging the status quo in energy and excite them to do something different.

“‘You only get one life, right?’ Skelly once said. ‘You might as well do something that is interesting and is challenging and is exciting. If it weren’t all those things, it wouldn’t be worthwhile’” (p. 273).

Buy Superpower here.

Find past volumes of the Carolina Planning Journal online here.

Olivia Corriere graduated from UNC this year. She studied environmental sustainability, geography, and urban planning. She worked as Project Manager at Blue Dogwood Public Market in Chapel Hill, NC. She also served as Co-Chair of the UNC Renewable Energy Special Projects Committee, managing renewable energy, energy efficiency, and energy education projects on campus. In her free time, Olivia enjoys hiking and cooking with friends and family.