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Trust in the wind

Alumnus Tom Carnahan sees opportunity blowing in the wind

windmill

Tom Carnahan, JD ’95, founded Wind Capital Group, which has established four wind farms in Missouri.

The wind in Missouri has multiple personalities. It can be a gentle breeze on a summer day or an icy blast in the dead of winter. It can be delicate as a whisper. And it can be fierce, churning with enough force to level an entire town. To Tom Carnahan, JD ’95, above all, it’s an opportunity.

As founder and president of Wind Capital Group, an energy wholesaler based in St. Louis, Carnahan has led the charge to harness Missouri’s wind and turn it into power for Missouri residents. In the process, he’s creating energy, jobs and economic prosperity for the state’s rural areas — all out of thin air.

Carnahan founded Wind Capital Group in 2005, and to date, the company has established four wind farms in Missouri: The Bluegrass Ridge Wind Farm in Gentry County, the Cow Branch Wind Energy Center in Atchison County, the Conception Wind Farm in Nodaway County and the Loess Hills Wind Farm, which powers the city of Rock Port, population 1,300, and made national headlines in 2008. The project consists of four wind turbines that provide power directly to the city of Rock Port, Mo., the first city in the country to meet 100 percent of its energy demands with wind power.

“Missouri is now on the radar in the push to develop alternative energy sources,” Carnahan says. “With growing concerns about climate change and energy security, now is the right time to invest in our communities and become a leader in wind power.”

Caution to the wind

Carnahan, son of former U.S. Sen. Jean Carnahan and the late Missouri Gov. Mel Carnahan, JD ’59, earned his undergraduate degree from William Jewell College in Liberty, Mo., and then attended the MU School of Law. After graduating, he practiced law — first as a staff attorney for the St. Louis city counselor’s office and then with his own firm, Carnahan and Garvin. He enjoyed law, but he knew it wasn’t the right career for him.

“I had always been fascinated with renewable energy and its promise for changing the way we do things in America,” he says. “I decided wind was the way to go.”

Critics of his new business venture cautioned that Missouri just wasn’t windy enough, and that the winds that did blow weren’t predictable. Carnahan refused to let the nay-saying or the eye rolling discourage him. He remembers looking at a map that showed wind energy projects in Kansas, Nebraska, Iowa and Illinois, but nothing in Missouri.

“I’m pretty sure the wind doesn’t know state boundaries,” Carnahan says. “That kept me going.”

A perfect storm of success

Jerry Baker, a community development specialist with MU Extension in Rock Port, worked with Carnahan to inform the citizens of Rock Port about the Loess Hills Wind Farm and says the community’s response to the project has been positive on all accounts. “Landowners get annual revenue for leasing the sites for the wind turbines [$2,000 to $5,000 per turbine per year], and each county Wind Capital Group operates in gets approximately $400,000 in tax revenue each year,” he says. “In rural America, you don’t often see large, successful projects like this just come to you.”

When the wind is still, the town reverts to purchasing energy from the traditional power grid, but Baker says so far, it’s more common for Rock Port to sell excess energy than to buy power.

For Carnahan, the success in Rock Port is proof of wind energy’s potential in Missouri, and he hopes, a sign that the winds of change are in full force. “When I first started talking about this idea, people by and large thought I was crazy,” he says. “Nobody thinks I’m crazy now.”

About the author: Sona Pai, BJ, BA ’99, is a freelance writer in Portland, Ore.

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