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Craig Gerhard was driving back to Houston from a camping trip at Lake Somerville two weekends ago when a billboard along U.S. Highway 290 caught his eye. It pictured a field of white wind turbines and a Web site address: GreenMountain.com.
Once home, he logged on and learned that Green Mountain Energy is the nation's leading alternative power company and for Texas would be offering its cleanest product: 100 percent wind-powered electricity. Electric deregulation in Texas would give Gerhard the chance to choose a provider offering less pollution than traditional utilities.
Gerhard, who works in information technology, grew up as a nature lover, always camping, hiking and backpacking. But only in recent years has he started to think in more environmental terms about issues like air pollution and energy consumption. He lives in a recycling household with two other people and shops at Whole Foods because "it's better for me and I enjoy knowing that I'm contributing to the best practices in terms of living on this planet."
And he thinks Green Mountain Energy might be one more good thing for him to do to help put the brakes on pollution.
Green Mountain Energy began in Vermont four years ago with the goal to provide environmentally friendly electricity and the advertising slogan "no coal, no nukes, no kidding." Since then, it has jumped into the deregulated electricity markets in six states, serving more than half a million people. Last year it relocated to Austin, in preparation for the newest market, Texas, which is slated to open retail competition in January 2002.
With captive consumers gone as deregulation hits each state, power companies face a marketing challenge in differentiating themselves from one another. After all, there is no difference between one electron and the next. But Green Mountain has found a niche. Among the six companies participating in the state's pilot program starting July 6, Green Mountain is the only one pushing alternative energy.
In this, Green Mountain likes to think of itself as educating the customer. Point one, says Gillan Taddune, a vice president at the company, is letting people know that they can choose an electric provider. Point two is asking, "Did you know that making electricity causes more air pollution than any other industry?" And point three is "to make the connection between that and then linking the two and saying Green Mountain Energy is part of this solution," she says. One hundred percent wind power means 100 percent pollution-free power.
At first glance, the company seems sincere in its promise of eco-electricity. It prints its letterhead and brochures on recycled, chlorine-free, unbleached paper with soy-based inks. Carpet containing recycled materials lines the office hallways. Light fixtures sport energy-efficient bulbs and timers in case someone forgets to turn them off. Windows grace cubicle walls to let natural light filter in.
The young company has the innovative feel of a start-up. Employees work in "teams," not departments. When the company moved into its new offices, employees painted murals in each of the many conference rooms. And like every good start-up in Austin, Green Mountain has a corporate playroom stocked with a pool table and other toys.
Yet the urban lime-green and rust-orange hallways of the company offices belie the heritage of a corporation that began as an arm of one of the biggest utilities in Vermont, drawing mixed reactions from environmentalists. Some are pleased to simply see someone offering a greener choice to consumers. But others question whether Green Mountain truly makes a difference to the environment. They also question the motivations of its investors, which include BP Amoco and Sam Wyly, a Republican donor and Texas billionaire who made much of his fortune in oil.
In March 2000, during the Republican primaries, a mysterious group called Republicans for Clean Air began playing $2.5 million worth of TV ads criticizing Senator John McCain's environmental record and praising the record of George W. Bush. Broadcast in New York, California and Ohio, the ads featured a photo of Bush superimposed over a meadow while McCain's picture appeared over belching smokestacks. "Governor Bush: Leading so each day dawns brighter," a voice-over proclaimed.
Bush claimed he knew nothing about the ads. The Sierra Club denounced them as "littered with half-truths." And the source of the ads remained a mystery, for no one had heard of the Republicans for Clean Air before. Not until the next day, when McCain asked the Federal Communications Commission to investigate whether the commercials adequately disclosed who paid for them, did Sam Wyly, a brassy Dallas businessman, fess up. He and his family had paid for the ads to highlight air pollution, he said.
"We have had a lot to do with building the Republican Party in Texas and nationally, and we'd appreciate it if the elected Republicans would look at our cause," he said at the time.
The brothers Wyly, Sam and Charles, have backed the Bush family since former president Bush served as a congressman in the 1960s. They have contributed more than $210,000 to George W. Bush's gubernatorial races and have given thousands to more than a dozen members of Congress (who have regularly voted against environmental bills), including U.S. senators Phil Gramm and Kay Bailey Hutchison.