The T. Boone Pickens Road Show

A former wildcatter and corporate-takeover tycoon preaches alternative energy across America.

During his lectures, Pickens invariably rails against former U.S. presidents for not having an energy plan. Then he smoothly transitions to a story, told in the folksy style that Pickens easily employs, recounting advice his father gave him in the late 1940s when Pickens was a sophomore struggling at Oklahoma A&M, now Oklahoma State University:

"He said, 'Son, a fool with a plan can beat a genius with no plan. And I'm afraid that I have a fool with no plan.'"

Pickens has a plan now, and it appears, at least for the moment, that this self-anointed "fool" is inching closer than ever to genius.

Rancher Ronnie Gill of Miami, Texas, says leasing his land to Pickens means he could earn at least $250,000 a year in royalties from wind turbines once the wind business starts up.
Chris Vogel
Rancher Ronnie Gill of Miami, Texas, says leasing his land to Pickens means he could earn at least $250,000 a year in royalties from wind turbines once the wind business starts up.
Pickens addressed a town hall meeting on energy independence last July in Topeka, Kansas.
AP Photo/Charlie Riedel
Pickens addressed a town hall meeting on energy independence last July in Topeka, Kansas.

"I think we've got the fish hooked," Pickens says. "Now we've got to get it in the boat."

For more than 30 years, Pickens has found sanctuary and solace at Mesa Vista, his sprawling 68,000-acre ranch in the Panhandle, near where he plans on building the world's largest wind farm. He's transformed the rolling hills, canyons and creek beds along the Canadian River into what's been called arguably the best quail-hunting spot on the planet. This is where Pickens calls home, and he'll be damned if the sight of soaring, industrial wind turbines is going to cast a shadow on his perfect country-boy oasis.

That Pickens will not put windmills on his own land sits just fine with Ronnie Gill, a rancher from nearby Miami (pronounced by the locals as Mi-am-uh). To Gill, that just means there will be more turbines to go around for folks such as him.

"Everybody wants one and hopes they'll get one," he says.

Last year, Gill leased all 7,000 of his acres to Pickens to use for the proposed wind farm that will span up to five counties. At $4 an acre, that means Gill is already making $28,000 a year for nothing more than signing a piece of paper. And just thinking about the day when the turbines start cranking forces a smile from the hardened rancher.

Pickens has said that he can erect five turbines every 640 acres without interrupting existing farming and cattle operations, and that each turbine will produce between $10,000 and $20,000 a year in royalties to the landowner. Gill figures that means, on the conservative end, that he'll pull in at least an extra quarter-million dollars a year.

Like almost everyone living in the area, Gill knows the criticism circling around Pickens: that the energy baron is simply out to make money for himself. Gill could not care less.

"I don't mind him making a buck," says Gill, "because I'll tell you what, he's generous enough to share it with the rest of us. And I really need it because I'm getting old and bald-headed. I really hope it'll come to pass."

Gill is not alone. City officials in Pampa, the second-largest town in the Panhandle, are already looking at Pickens's wind farm as the second coming, akin to an old-fashioned oil boom. Keith Pittner, head of the Pampa Chamber of Commerce, says that in addition to income from the royalties, the expectation is that the project will create thousands of jobs and increase taxes for the school district by as much as $2.4 billion by 2018.

A new subdivision is being planned in north Pampa to house all the new workers expected to move to the area, and the community college is preparing to start teaching wind-energy and turbine-maintenance classes. The city has even put up colorful billboards on the outskirts of town showing windmills lined up against the sky with the new town slogan, "Pampa. Where wheat grows, oil flows & wind blows!!"

This is the Pickens that the nation got to know through his initial blitz of television ads during the presidential campaign, in which he appeared alongside towering white turbines churning against a pristine blue Panhandle sky — a messiah to the Greenies and a future clean-energy kingpin.

Pickens's original plan in the summer of 2008 was to erect 2,700 turbines across 200,000 acres, generating 4,000 megawatts — enough to power between 1 million and 1.5 million homes. Pickens has already written a $150 million check to General Electric to build the first 667 of his turbines. They are not scheduled to be completed and delivered until 2011, which, given the economy, suits Pickens fine — he can't finance the project now anyway.

"It's sort of like, one time I asked my father if we could do something," Pickens recalls at a late-February event in Washington, D.C., "and he said there are three reasons we can't do it. The first one, he said, is we don't have the money, and it doesn't make a damn about the other two."

Still, locals insist the delay has not dampened their spirits.

"We're hoping for the best," says Pittner. "No one doubts Boone's word; it's just circumstances beyond everyone's control and we're waiting to see what happens."

Pickens appreciates their confidence in him.

"If I can't make the wind go," he says, "I'll feel like I let everyone down. And I'm not going to let anyone down."

Even though Pickens can't get his wind farm up and running as fast as he'd hoped, overall the U.S. wind energy industry is hanging tough. In 2008, the United States surpassed Germany as the world's largest producer of wind energy, according to the American Wind Energy Association, and there were more than 80 wind farms under construction across the country at the close of the year. Texas by far leads all states with the amount of wind energy it currently produces, followed by California, Iowa, Minnesota and Washington state.

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