“If you can dream it, do it.” – Walt Disney
When my son was two years old and we lived in Orange County, California, I purchased season tickets to Disneyland, and we visited the park regularly every week. Everyone thought I was going for my son. While he most certainly enjoyed the Disney experience, I secretly cherished going where I could escape from real life to a fantastic magical world. A place where all dreams can true. Of course, to achieve any dream, it requires a lot of hard work. Even at Disneyland, you must stand in a very long line with many restless children to go on the exciting roller coaster. Even there, reaching the dream isn’t easy.
Fifteen years ago, my husband, Troy Helming, and I founded the First utility-scale wind power company in Kansas: TradewindEnergy LLC (formerly Kansas Wind Power LLC). Early on, we struggled to learn the energy business, the utility scale wind development business, and to raise capital, while fighting intense, and sometimes extreme, resistance from fossil fuel interests; and surprisingly, even from some environmentalists.
There were a few times that we received death threats while trying to develop wind projects, particularly a project to the northeast of Wichita in El Dorado County KS. At that site, hunting clubs, with very wealthy members claimed that the wind turbines scared off the birds and deer. We later learned that the “dig up stuff and burn it” fossil fuel advocates from nearby Koch Industries world headquarters were affiliated with and/or members of that hunting club. Of course, this was the first project where we were denied a conditional use permit by the county 4 to 3 against. Despite the odds and opposition, we plowed on and developed about a dozen sites in the state for wind farms over the next year.
About that time, my husband Troy was approached by the Sierra Club and the Concerned Citizens of Platte County to serve as an Expert Witness in their fight against Great Plains Energy to make the case that wind power is a financially viable alternative to coal power, in opposition to the utility’s plans to build three new coal plants. Within weeks of Troy’s testimony, our company was approached by almost every regulator in the state of Missouri, including the Securities Division of the Secretary of State, the consumer protection office, the attorney general, and several others. Their inquiries were groundless; however, we were so burdened with our time to provide the barrage of documentation and with extraneous legal costs, that our business suffered dramatically, almost forcing us temporarily out of business.
During these legal battles, Troy and I struggled to make ends meet. While we had a newborn baby, the bank foreclosed on our house, one of our cars was repossessed. Our credit was in the toilet. We were on the brink of divorce. We didn’t know how we would survive, but we persisted, continuing to aggressively build wind farm sites, against all odds. Just as it seemed like we would lose our minds, the company was approached by a large Italian utility, Enel, to make a multi-million-dollar investment in the company.
By that time, all regulatory and legal inquiries and claims were dropped and/or settled; and, in 2007, as a result of the efforts of Troy’s testimony and other factors, the Sierra Club reached a landmark settlement with Great Plains Energy that required them to build 400 megawatts of wind farms in lieu of building two of the three new coal plants they were trying to get approved, invest in the latest emissions & pollution control systems for the one new coal plant they were allowed to build, add emissions controls to numerous other coal plants, offer net metering for residential rooftop solar and greatly expand an energy efficiency program. This was the beginning of the acceptance of renewable energy in the Midwest, and that settlement became the model for the wildly successful Beyond Coal campaign for the Sierra Club. While we should have been jumping for joy over Enel’s offer to invest in the company, this news was bittersweet.
Even though we weathered the short-term storm, Troy was considered a wild card to the ultra-conservative utilities in the Midwest. To rebuild the company, the board for our wind power company recommended that Troy and I both resign and sell out our interests. After all that we had been through, this was heart-breaking. We had to make a choice. We chose survival. Enel bought the company and re-branded Kansas Wind Power to the new name Trade Wind Energy.
It was experiences like this that led me to pursue screenwriting at UCLA. My first screenplay called “Green Warrior” chronicled this David vs. Goliath story and included our starting the grass roots movement in the Midwest with the Sierra Club and Concerned Citizens of Platte County that eventually led to a landmark settlement that required utilities to buy wind power instead of power from fossil fuels.
Today, TradeWind is one of the largest renewable energy developers in the Midwest with over $2 Billion in developed wind farms. In 2012, TradeWind received the distinction of winning the Outstanding Commercial Achievement Award from the American Wind Energy Association. Now, most of the giant spinning wind turbines that you see in Kansas, Oklahoma, Texas, Nebraska, Missouri and Iowa were developed by the company we started.
The interesting thing is that I wrote the end of this story two years before the construction of most of the wind in the Midwest and before the landmark settlement was finalized. It was like I had written the ending that I desired…and then it happened in real life!!
Ultimately, we invested the money we made from selling the wind company to build a bio-fuels plant and to start our current company, Pristine Sun. Pristine Sun is the leading owner/operator/developer of small utility scale solar farms in California and one of the leaders in the United States. In 2015, this company had grown to the point where I was finally able to formally retire in my role as CFO there, to follow my passion and dreams to write a novel..
What did it teach me? There is no such thing as impossible. No wonder I always loved Walt Disney.