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Harvesting the Wind

How a conservative billionaire is moving heaven and earth to become California's biggest green-energy supplier.



In 2006, Bill Miller was about to sell his boss' cattle ranch, a 500-square-mile high desert expanse in south-central Wyoming. A buyer was prepared to pay roughly $50 million for it. But something was gnawing at Miller. Every time he visited the place — the Overland Trail Ranch — the wind there blew so fiercely he had to brace against it just to stay upright.

Miller's boss, Philip Anschutz, had become one of the richest men in America — with a fortune of nearly $12 billion — by figuring out an abundance of ways to churn wealth out of real estate, from oil wells and railroads to sports arenas and cattle ranches.

Born in the midst of the 1930s oil boom in central Kansas, Anschutz had a wildcatter for a father and a mother who taught history in a one-room schoolhouse. In the early 1960s, when he was just a few years out of college, he bought his father's oil company and renamed it the Anschutz Corporation. In the 1970s, land he owned in Utah became home to the largest US oil find since Alaska's Prudhoe Bay. In the 1980s, he chased leases on immense tracts of land in a geological formation in the Rockies called the Overthrust Belt, amassing oil drilling rights on more than 10 million acres. He diversified, buying the Rio Grande railroad, then the Southern Pacific, later merging them, then selling them again.

Today, Anschutz is the largest shareholder in the nation's biggest movie theater chain, Regal Entertainment, and owns the film company Walden Media (it produced the Chronicles of Narnia movies and The Giver). The Anschutz Entertainment Group owns the Los Angeles Kings hockey team, as well as a minority stake in the Lakers. It also owns the Staples Center, the complex where both teams play, and dozens of other big-city venues. Anschutz owns a company that runs the hotels and concessions in major US national parks. In the past decade, he has expanded his media holdings to include the Weekly Standard, which he purchased from Rupert Murdoch, and the Washington Examiner, both of which toe a conservative political line. (He also used to own the San Francisco Examiner.) And he donates millions to charity every year.

Though Anschutz's collection of properties is eclectic, his approach to business is straightforward. "Mr. Anschutz's view of the world," explained Miller, "is that the basis for all wealth and all opportunity is land." This year, Anschutz co-authored a book titled Out Where the West Begins, about pioneering businessmen, many of whom also made their fortunes off the land by trapping, trading, mining, or ranching.

One morning in 2006, as Miller stood on the barren bluffs of the Overland Trail Ranch, thinking about the sale of the property, he sensed an opportunity. Miller was soon sitting in Anschutz's 24th-floor office, which has a sweeping view of Denver, the high desert, and the Rocky Mountains beyond. The two of them knew that the market for wind energy was growing, and that other oil and gas companies had been poking around Wyoming's windy corners. "I know we're trying to sell this ranch," Miller told his boss, "but we may have something here. So why don't we peel this orange and see what we get?"

Anschutz, who reads widely about energy markets, seized on the idea at once. Though the pair didn't realize it at the time, they were about to hatch plans for the largest single onshore wind farm in the world.

On the prairies of northwestern Iowa, where turbines have been churning out electricity since around 2000, the winds are considered Class 3 by the National Renewable Energy Laboratory, which ranks wind density on a scale from one (lowest) to seven (highest). The winds of West Texas, home to some of the nation's largest wind farms, are Class 4. Most wind power in these places is generated at night, when the winds blow the hardest. But that's the time, of course, when people need it the least.

Along the ridges of the Overland Trail Ranch are some of the only Class 7 winds in the nation. What's more, the wind on the ranch starts up in the morning and gains force throughout the day, just when people are firing up their air conditioners and dishwashers. "We looked at the data and said, 'I'll be damned,'" Miller recalled. The property was like the Saudi Arabia of wind.

It just so happened that to the west, in California, then-Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger had signed landmark legislation to reduce carbon emissions and to require the state's utilities to get up to a third of their electricity from renewable sources. Anschutz and Miller had the wind and the financial wherewithal for a project of immense scope, and now they had the market.

Even among billionaires, Anschutz is an eccentric. Reputed to be painfully shy, he rarely makes public appearances and has spoken to the press only a handful of times in his fifty-year career. (His office declined an interview request for this story.) But big projects, particularly ones with formidable obstacles, have always attracted him. Miller's wind project would require $8 billion in financing, and there were plenty of obstacles standing in its path — not the least of which was the part of the Overland Trail Ranch that sits on federal land. But it had all the markings of another Anschutz triumph. He'd tap a resource others had overlooked, bring it to a market 700 miles away, and do it on a scale never previously attempted.