In 2001, Michael Polsky found himself snared in the entrepreneur's trap.
He'd sold the power company he co-founded to the giant utility Calpine and agreed to stay on and run it for a while. He was miserable, but quitting meant leaving money on the table. After eight seemingly endless months, he persuaded his corporate overlords to let him go. The agreement he reached with Calpine even allowed him to take five people with him, including longtime operating partner Jim Murphy.
Although Polsky was clearly planning another startup, Calpine didn't bother to make him sign a noncompete agreement, he says, "because, obviously, how could six guys compete with a big company?"
Start by taking risks that big companies can't stomach. Embrace promising technology before they do. Then be just as willing to change course quickly if needed. Polsky's unending ambition, his accumulated knowledge of power plants, and his shrewd (if a tad early) commitment to wind power have made the new company he founded, Invenergy, the largest independent renewable energy provider in North America, a nearly $1 billion lone wolf in an industry dominated by behemoths like Duke, NRG, and Southern Company. Invenergy developed its first project in 2003, a total loser of a wind farm in Tennessee called Buffalo Mountain. Since then, the economic winds have shifted. Invenergy has built 78 wind farms--mainly in the U.S. but also in Canada, Uruguay, Poland, and the U.K.--12 utility-scale solar installations, 12 natural gas plants, and six battery-storage facilities. Total generating capacity: more than 16,000 megawatts, enough to power five million homes--and more are coming.
Polsky isn't some green warrior seeking to save us from our fossil fuelishness. He was a power industry entrepreneur looking for a defensible niche in the industry, and he found one. Seventy-five percent of his $8 billion portfolio of plant assets is powered by renewables. Last year, Invenergy broke ground on Wind Catcher, a 2,000-megawatt project in the Oklahoma Panhandle whose $4.5 billion price tag includes the cost, born by utilities, of building a 350-mile connector line. Once it is fully operational in 2020, it will be the biggest wind farm in North America and second biggest in the world. "There were so many naysayers even 10 years ago," says Dan Bakal, director of electric power at Ceres, a Boston nonprofit that advises companies and investors on sustainability. "Now they're all recognizing that renewables are viable technologies that can be deployed at scale. We've seen substantial improvements in efficiency and cost, and dramatic growth. That's clearly where things are going."
Polsky provides yet another example of the extraordinary entrepreneurial energy that immigrants bring to the U.S., and of what they can get out of it. He still owns most of Invenergy's stock and has amassed a vast personal fortune--enough to bestow $50 million on his B-school alma mater, the University of Chicago, and disperse $184 million to his ex-wife, Maya. The 68-year-old Polsky never foresaw this, not when Invenergy began, and certainly not when he was a young engineer in the Soviet Union's Ukrainian Republic in the mid-1970s.
Lasalle County, Illinois, two hours southwest of Chicago, is corn and soybean country. In the late summer, it's a waving carpet of green under a high, blue dome, heat-blasted and silent but for the rustling of corn stalks and, in spots, something else: a low, steady hum. Scores of 262-foot-tall turbines, noses to the wind, trace solemn circles in the sky.
This is Invenergy's Grand Ridge Energy Center. Here you can see the past and the future of our electricity supply. There's the wind farm, with 140 turbines powering more than 34,000 homes; a utility-scale solar farm nestled in a bed of purple and yellow wildflowers; and to bank that energy, a 30-megawatt battery storage facility. In the midst of it, sipping from a manmade cooling lake three miles square, is an aging nuclear plant, owned by Exelon.
When nukes were new, they were the beneficiaries of a federal energy policy. Likewise, a decade or so later wind and solar got the government's blessing, mostly in the form of generous tax credits. But those incentives are now being phased out. If renewables, currently responsible for 15 percent of our electricity supply, are ever going to supplant nukes (20 percent), not to mention fossil fuels (65 percent), it won't be because our survival depends on it, though that may be true. They'll have to win on old-fashioned metrics such as reliability and price. Polsky is betting they can.
He was the first in his family to go to college, graduating from Kiev Polytechnic in 1974 with an advanced degree in mechanical engineering. Opportunities remained limited, though, because of his religion. Two years later, he applied for refugee status as a persecuted Jew--"You're basically not welcome there," Polsky explains, seemingly without rancor, in an interview at Invenergy headquarters in Chicago's north Loop. The offices are a cross between an art gallery (one with lots of pictures of turbines, smokestacks, and boilers) and a technology startup; everywhere are young people who look too cool to work at a power company. Polsky doesn't understand why letting employees dress for work in jeans is a benefit, but he allows it. In the reception area, there's a display that keeps a running tally of Invenergy's lifetime CO2 savings, expressed as an equivalent number of cars off the road: 10,998,537 when I arrive, 703 more by the time I leave.
Not many people can say that energy was their destiny. Even Polsky. "Nobody is born to be a power plant engineer, like you're born to be an artist or a composer," he says. "But when I started studying it, I liked it." Enthralled might be a better word. He remembers a moment during his journey to the West, on a train between Rome and Milan, when his heart leaped at the sight of a set of belching smokestacks. "Because I felt, 'Oh, maybe one day I'll be working on a power plant!' " he recalls. "Even now, when I go in a power plant, I feel like I'm in an environment that I like and I want to be in."
His degree yielded a job at Bechtel, the American construction behemoth that built Hoover Dam--and most of Saudi Arabia's infrastructure. He also worked at the Swiss engineering giant Brown Boveri (now ABB) and at Fluor, another American design-build titan. There Polsky helped design what are called cogeneration, or co-gen, plants, which run on natural gas and generate heat and electricity simultaneously.
Then, a change in U.S. energy policy would change his life: the passage in 1978 of the landmark Public Utility Regulatory Policies Act. Purpa broke up the local utility monopolies by encouraging public and private companies to build power plants and sell electricity to whomever they chose. This movement toward deregulation--airlines would soon follow--"caught my imagination," Polsky says. He saw immense potential and tried to persuade his bosses at Fluor to get into the business directly, rather than simply design plants for others. Fluor was wary of competing with customers and demurred. Frustrated, Polsky left, and in 1985, he co-founded Indeck Energy Services.
He was finally doing what he had always dreamed of--building his own power plants. The pace was thrilling. Indeck soon topped $100 million in value and made the Inc. 500 list of America's fastest-growing private companies three times, reaching No. 2 in 1993. But by then, Polsky had had a falling out with his partner, which led to his being dismissed from his own company. Lawsuits ensued, an arbitrator ruled, and in 1995 Polsky walked away with a reported $20 million settlement. Richer and wiser, he was eager to begin again.
And again his timing was perfect, given that the last decade of the 20th century was an ideal period to be restarting in the power business. The looser regs, rising energy demand, and cheaper natural gas prices fueled a wave of new construction. Polsky and a new partner, Murphy, founded SkyGen Energy, to ride that wave. They moved beyond cogeneration into so-called peaking plants--large, gas-powered generators capable of firing up in minutes, designed to meet spikes in demand.
SkyGen's big initial challenge was one Polsky has faced his whole career: raising capital in a business that demands stupendous upfront investment. His competitors were either regulated utilities, which can recover costs through rate increases; or public companies, blessed just then with soaring valuations and access to capital markets. Polsky's approach, by default, was build, sell, reinvest, repeat. "We eat what we kill," he says. "We don't have a parent who cooks for us."
Stymied, he hired an investment banker to review his options. Going public wasn't one of them; Polsky knew he didn't have the temperament for that. He also looked at joint ventures. In the end, he decided on an outright sale. That's when Calpine stepped in. SkyGen's takeaway in 2000 was $650 million, net of debt. In retrospect, he looked like a genius. Gas prices soon spiked, the economy slowed, credit got tight, and suddenly the formerly high-flying power industry was scrambling to get out from under mountains of debt.
A year later, Polsky stepped out on his own again to form Invenergy, with the goal of relieving those debt-burdened companies of some of their power plants, at appropriately discounted prices. You'd think that an entrepreneur who is a proven innovator, adept at managing big projects and at discerning what's next, would be a magnet for capital. He was--but only on the tilted terms that private equity players and banks were offering. "There was a big disconnect between the bid and the ask, OK?" he says.
To hell with investors. Polsky poured a huge chunk of his net worth, some $120 million, into the new venture. It was, he understates, "a lot of money for me." The gamble would pay off spectacularly, but only after he devised a new plan. Focusing on buying natural gas power plants didn't make sense anymore, not with the limited capital at his disposal. Plus, with private equity suddenly on the hunt for the same plants, the bargains became harder to find. "We had too much discipline to win in those auctions," says Murphy, the COO.
Where, then, could they invest? "In our hearts, we understood that we are not financial players," says Polsky, who still speaks with an accent and, with his curly gray locks and restless energy, could be Anthony Bourdain's twin. "We are developers. That's our bread and butter. So we went through a period of trying to find what's good and best for us. We needed to find out what would be our niche."
When Invenergy built its first wind farm, in 2003, wind power in the U.S. totaled some 6,000 megawatts--about 7 percent of what it is now. "Nobody really took wind seriously," says Polsky. "I don't know if we took it that seriously." Back then, says energy expert Kevin Knobloch, a senior fellow at the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy, "the whole notion of building a successful business plan around clean energy was aspirational." Polsky asked one of his guys to take a closer look and make a recommendation. That's how Invenergy wound up being the low bid on a tiny, 27-megawatt demonstration project for the Tennessee Valley Authority near Oak Ridge, Tennessee. Ready or not, Polsky was in the wind business.
Not ready--Buffalo Mountain was a failure. Invenergy underestimated the cost of building on a remote, hilly site with no access roads, and overestimated the wind strength. "The art of measuring the wind resource at the time was not nearly as refined as it is now," Polsky says. "We financed the project on the basis of a forecast that never materialized." Invenergy sunk $40 million into Buffalo Mountain and lost $6 million.
Polsky insists it was money well spent. He could see now where this sector was going, and was eager to apply lessons learned. Invenergy's next three projects--in Montana, Colorado, and Idaho--combined were 10 times bigger than Buffalo Mountain, and all three made money. During those early days, production tax credits were key. Without the credits, wind couldn't compete, and whenever Congress let them expire, the industry suffered, only to bounce back when they were restored. Current legislation calls for a gradual phase out by 2020. This time, no one's counting on another extension.
The credits have accomplished their goal. Total wind-powered generating capacity has grown enormously since the credits were introduced as part of the Energy Policy Act of 1992, and not just because there are so many more wind farms. Development has spurred innovation, such that today's best turbines are one-third more efficient than their immediate predecessors. According to the latest projections from the U.S. Energy Information Agency, onshore wind energy plants entering service in 2022 will generate cheaper electricity than any other fuel source with the exception of geothermal, which doesn't have nearly the potential that wind does.
One more noteworthy fact about Wind Catcher: Polsky already has an eager buyer lined up, two utilities owned by American Electric Power. AEP, it so happens, is still the country's largest coal-fired electricity generator. To Polsky, that's a clear sign that the market-driven shift to a low-carbon economy is unstoppable--despite lapsing tax credits, America's pending withdrawal from the Paris climate agreement, and whatever Big Coal, Big Oil, and the nuclear power industry have to say. "We have reached a tipping point," says Polsky. "We feel we are simply on the right side of history, rather than the right side of ideology."