Denise Bode grew up in the cradle of Oklahoma's oil industry, daughter of a Phillips Petroleum executive living in a town where that company fueled the economy.
She battled for petroleum businesses for years, fighting for tax benefits and promoting natural gas as the way to ease climate change.
Now she calls wind the best energy solution.
Bode, 56, heads the American Wind Energy Association, the industry's largest trade group and a rising force in the energy world. She is seen as a political powerhouse, though some environmentalists question whether she lacks true passion for green causes. There is also some resentment about her politics, as she switched from Democrat to Republican in the 1990s.
Bode dismisses the criticism, arguing her fossil fuel background is an asset. She knows the strategies of oil and gas businesses, she said, and understands how they can partner with wind. Her change of political parties, she said, means she understands both and can bridge differences.
"Anybody that knows me knows that I don't do things I don't really care about," Bode said in an interview. "I chose this job because it was something I was passionate about, that I felt like I could use all the experience I had, working 30 years in the energy area.
"I know," she added, "where everybody's buried in energy."
Now in her second year at AWEA, Bode leads the organization at what many see as a pivotal time for the wind industry. Congress is considering policies that could bolster renewables. Investments in wind businesses already have boomed, amplifying AWEA's size and importance. The trade group this week in Dallas hosts its annual conference and more than 20,000 people are expected. That is nearly triple the attendance AWEA had at its conference two years ago.
Sen. Byron Dorgan (D-N.D.) and Govs. Chet Culver (D) of Iowa, Bill Ritter (D) of Colorado and Ted Strickland (D) of Ohio open the event today. Former President George W. Bush is scheduled to speak at the conference tomorrow.
But wind also faces major hurdles. Despite a promising year in 2009, wind installations in the first three months of this year fell to their lowest first quarter level since 2007.
Many turbines are being manufactured overseas. China holds a monopoly on the rare-earth metals used to make wind systems.
Because it is more expensive than other energy sources, there is insufficient demand for wind power absent a federal penalty for producing carbon emissions or a requirement that utilities use renewable power, said Kevin Book, managing director of Washington, D.C.-based consulting firm ClearView Energy Partners.
Climate legislation could help renewables grow, but the political prospects of that appear to be melting away.
"This is a critical time, possibly the most critical time in the wind industry's history," Book said. Securing federal incentives is key, he said, and "somebody who's a capable steward of relationships in Washington will be a vital part of that strategy."
In an interview at her AWEA office, Bode eagerly detailed why she is the right person at the right time for AWEA. Dressed in a black suit and red blouse, she hopscotched over her previous jobs in politics, heading an oil and natural gas association, regulating Oklahoma utilities and leading natural gas group American Clean Skies Foundation. At each turn, she explained, she worked on issues tied to wind.
Bode calls herself AWEA's "chief nagger," whose job is to keep people on task. She has also adopted the role of booster. She held up a phone displaying the image of a spinning windmill.
"My iPhone also records the velocity of the wind," Bode said. "Is that cool or what? It's the ultimate iPhone app."
Wind icons aside, she has serious goals, and equally serious obstacles.
Representing 2,500 companies, AWEA wants a permanent tax credit for wind and a federal requirement that utilities generate a portion of power from renewable sources.
That renewable electricity standard was included the House climate bill and in legislation passed out of the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee. Both times it fell short of the 25 percent standard the wind industry seeks. It is not in the new bill from Sens. John Kerry (D-Mass.) and Joe Lieberman (I-Conn.)
Some analysts predict that without that mandate, demand for new wind projects could evaporate. But if Bode has any worries about passage of those measures and a climate bill in an election year, she doesn't let on.
"It's gonna pass," Bode said. "It's our mission to win. Because if we don't, we lose an opportunity that likely won't come back again here in the U.S."
There have been some successes in Bode's short tenure. After nine years of controversy, Interior Secretary Ken Salazar last month approved construction of the 130-turbine Cape Wind farm off Massachusetts' coast, a project he dubbed the country's "first offshore wind farm" (Greenwire, April 28).
Installed wind capacity grew 40 percent last year, powered largely by passage of the stimulus bill. That law included a three-year extension of a 2.1-cent tax credit for every kilowatt-hour of green power produced, plus language allowing a federal grant in lieu of the value of that tax credit.
Before the stimulus bill, forecasts for wind had projected a 50 percent downturn because of the recession.
Bode has helped expand AWEA's visibility and influence, said Scott Segal, a lawyer at Bracewell & Giuliani who represents electric utilities, petroleum refiners and other energy interests.
"She's clearly very savvy in terms of her ability to attract attention to an issue," Segal said. "From a voice standpoint, she's been very good."
But there also have been stumbles. Turmoil followed a report from the Investigative Reporting Workshop at American University that said 79 percent of $2 billion in renewable energy grants in the stimulus bill went to foreign companies.
Sens. Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.), Bob Casey (D-Pa.) Sherrod Brown (D-Ohio) and Jon Tester (D-Mont.) introduced legislation that would limit grants to companies that create most of their jobs domestically and rely on materials made in the United States.
Wind needs to overcome transmission roadblocks, with existing lines unable to carry enough wind power to urban areas at peak times. AWEA has reported that nearly 300,000 megawatts of proposed wind projects have not been connected to the grid. There are questions about how to fund transmission upgrades in a high-deficit era.
"It's expensive to build, you have to buy [the equipment] from somebody else, the siting issues are contentious, the grid can't handle it without backup power," said Ken Green, resident scholar at American Enterprise Institute. "It's a long list."
Bode has experience overcoming roadblocks.
In the early 1990s, she became the first woman to head the Independent Petroleum Association of America, the trade group for smaller oil and natural gas companies. She was the only woman at the time leading an energy association.
The men in charge of other energy influence organizations let Bode know she was not part of their club. They met regularly for breakfast, she said, and she was not invited.
Bode said she focused on congressional victories. Working with then-Sen. Tim Wirth (D-Colo.), she and her staff at IPAA helped craft legislation that established a system for similar energy rates in the United States and Canada, allowing for an international pipeline network.
"After that, it was amazing how much the door opened," Bode said. "But I had to prove myself."
The men, she added, "invited me to breakfast."
These days she has fewer problems getting invited places. In her office she showed off a picture of herself with President Obama taken just before his inauguration when he stopped at an Ohio company that makes bolts for wind turbines. Obama has his arm around her in the photo.
"Look at this picture and say it isn't an advantage," Bode said, referring to Obama's commitment to renewable energy.
Bode tends to speak in paragraphs peppered with public relations buzz words. She wants to "educate" people and destroy "myths." She talks about the "natural partnerships" with other power sectors. There should be no doubt, she says, about her commitment to wind or the importance of her assignment.
"This job is a legacy job for me," Bode said. "To be able to retire and say that I helped build a new manufacturing sector, that I helped people get jobs, that I helped build a new source of electricity, I told the search committee that I'd do the job for free."
AWEA's board of directors picked Bode in 2008. A head hunter had put her on a list of potential candidates to fill the wind group's CEO job when then-CEO Randall Swisher announced his retirement. Bode, at the American Clean Skies Foundation at the time, landed on a short list of about six people who came in for interviews.
"She really stood out as the type of person that we felt could handle a number of tasks at the same time," said Ed Zaelke, who was on the screening committee.
The board wanted someone who could direct legislative efforts, manage the staff of about 75 people and help craft a message that would generate support from Congress and the public, Zaelke said.
"The wind industry was no longer a science experiment," he added. "We needed someone who could really carry the banner."
Bode is known to use creative methods to broadcast her messages. When she ran IPAA, Bode had a drilling rig brought to the National Mall in front of the Capitol as Congress considered tax issues that would affect the industry, said Barry Russell, CEO of IPAA. He worked as a vice president of the trade group for Bode in the 1990s.
"She thought it would be a good way to get everybody's attention, and it did," Russell said. Lawmakers came out to see the rig and talked to Bode.
"Denise was very good at getting out those kinds of messages," Russell said.
One of Bode's first tasks at AWEA was refining the group's message. Under her direction, the association paid Republican and Democratic pollsters to test which ideas about wind resonated with people.
Pollsters for both parties found, Bode said, that wind was the most popular source for electricity generation. The polls showed that people believe wind and solar are the less expensive power sources than natural gas, oil, coal and nuclear power, Bode said.
"There's a reason every major business is using wind turbines in their ads," she said.
Bode and AWEA have focused on "keeping on a positive strong message as to who we are and why we're important." People believe the argument wind now is using, Bode said, that the industry creates jobs.
A figurine of J.R. Ewing, notorious oil magnate from the long-running TV series "Dallas," stands on a shelf behind Bode's desk at AWEA. It seems a curious decoration for wind's CEO but symbolizes a key moment in Bode's career.
After she became the first woman to head IPAA, Bode gave a speech to the Dallas Petroleum Club where she told the audience, "I shot J.R." As the first female boss, Bode said, she changed the group's image from "the gold and diamonds, sort of the flamboyant oil and gas industry to one being run by a soccer mom."
Bode at both IPAA and the American Clean Skies Foundation helped tailor each industry's image, though soccer mom might soft-sell her approach.
"Most people that know me, who have known me throughout the energy business, know I'll get the job done," Bode said. "I am certainly as tough as needed."
Bode's former colleagues characterize her as a natural leader. When she took over IPAA, the group became more involved in advocating for legislation, said Russell who worked with Bode at IPAA. Bode came to the group after working as a lobbyist, and before that for Sen. David Boren (D-Okla.), handling legislation that went through the Finance Committee. Bode is an attorney and specialist in tax policy.
"She's a very high-energy person," said Bob Anthony, a Republican who chairs the Oklahoma Corporation Commission, the utility regulator where Bode worked as a commissioner from 1997 to 2007.
Yet before she was hired, Zaelke said, some on the AWEA board had concerns that Bode's background was not typical for someone who would be joining a renewable trade group. Because she had worked for fossil fuel companies and is a Republican, some feared she might lack the ardor many in the organization had for advancing wind power, he said.
Bode might have helped convince the board about her commitment when she made that comment that she would work for free. They laughed, she said, and in the end, she is getting paid. An AWEA spokeswoman declined to say how much, but tax records show Bode's predecessor earned about $340,000 annually in salary and benefits.
Bode in her first year at AWEA has helped shift people in Washington's view of wind, said one person in the energy field who asked not to be identified in order to speak freely. But at the same time, this person said, AWEA might lack the swagger needed to outmaneuver energy trade groups like the American Petroleum Institute, which represents oil and natural gas companies.
"They don't have the acumen and the killer instinct and the willingness to say, 'We're the wind industry and you have to deal with us,'" the energy industry person said. "They don't realize they're as big a deal as they are."
Bode laughed when asked whether she has a killer instinct.
"Gosh, I hope not," Bode said. "I would hate to be characterized as someone with a killer instinct."
A killer instinct is not always the best weapon, Bode said.
"Sometimes it backfires," Bode said. "It turns off the public. It turns off policymakers."
She added, "Having run for office, I'm about winning. You don't go negative on folks unless it is a last alternative ... when you see an industry really going negative on someone else."
Bode dived into politics while in college. While attending the University of Oklahoma, Bode teamed up with her college boyfriend, John Bode -- who later became her husband -- to stop a tuition hike. John Bode was the president of the student body and Denise Bode, then Denise Durham, chaired the student congress.
Facing that tuition increase, Denise Durham researched the state constitution and found a provision that barred fee hikes for veterans unless they had been approved by the state Legislature. The school's regents had not gained approval for the increase, she said.
They filed a lawsuit against then-Gov. Boren (who later became Sen. Boren.) The students won the case. Boren hired both John Bode and the future Denise Bode.
"We were rabble-rousers," Denise Bode said.
The pair today is a power couple in Washington, D.C. John Bode works as an attorney at Olsson Frank & Weeda where he handles agriculture and food law and is a specialist in the Food and Drug Administration. He worked as an assistant secretary at the Department of Agriculture under Presidents Reagan and George H.W. Bush. They have a son, Sean, 27, and daughter-in-law, Jaime.
Back then, Denise Bode worked in Boren's gubernatorial office, then followed him to Washington when he was elected to the U.S. Senate. (Republican James Inhofe won Boren's Senate seat after he retired in 1994.)
She earned a law degree and a master's in taxation while working as legal counsel to Boren. Together they wrote one of the first tax credits for renewable power, Bode said. After six years in Boren's Senate office, she left to become a lobbyist representing industry clients in energy, agriculture and several other areas. In 1991, she jumped to IPAA.
A few years later she made another big change, switching from Democrat to Republican. Bode said she considered herself a moderate and nonpartisan. In the early 1990s, she said, the Democratic Party ceased to represent her views.
"There was a real push toward real partisanship," Bode said. "The Republican Party at that point was really embracing the big tent approach."
Others see the move as convenient. With Democrats losing seats, it was an easy time to jump to the Republican Party, said one Democratic energy lobbyist who knows Bode.
"That's a problem with anybody who switches parties," the lobbyist said. "They're not really trusted."
Bode left IPAA and Washington when Oklahoma's then-Gov. Frank Keating (R) appointed her to a seat on the state's Corporation Commission in 1997. Bode subsequently was elected to two terms on the commission, which regulates utilities as well as oil and natural gas production, transportation, gasoline, and above- and below-ground storage tanks.
Aubrey McClendon, billionaire CEO and chairman of Chesapeake Energy Corp., gave $5,000 to Bode's campaign when she ran for the corporation commission, state records show. She met McClendon while with the commission and later went to work for American Clean Skies, which Chesapeake funds.
That relationship to McClendon chafes some Democrats, according to one political insider who asked not to be identified. McClendon helped fund the 2004 Swift Boat campaign against Democratic presidential nominee John Kerry.
Bode sought bigger political seats but twice lost. She ran unsuccessfully in 2002 for Oklahoma attorney general, losing in a vote that went 60 percent to the Democrat. Bode in 2006 came in third in a six-way Republican race for the nomination for the state's 5th District U.S. House seat. It is currently held by the winner of that race, Rep. Mary Fallin, a Republican.
Bode returned to Washington and took the job as head of the American Clean Skies Foundation.
Early in Bode's tenure, American Clean Skies took on coal, launching ads featuring photographs of sooty faces over the slogan, "Face it: Coal is filthy." The campaign urged people to tell Congress "you want clean air." McClendon's Oklahoma-based Chesapeake Energy is the nation's third largest independent natural gas producer.
Congress members from coal states attacked the ads, saying they were about profits for Chesapeake Energy and not clean air. Chesapeake quickly dropped its funding for the ads.
As head of AWEA, Bode hits the coal issue again. She initially downplayed that there is any tension between wind and fossil fuels, saying, "We think we're a valuable diversification."
But Bode also revealed AWEA's approach when she speaks about gas replacing coal, and wind partnering with gas to lower costs. State regulators looking at authorizing new power plants, she added, are moving away from coal.
"I see it as a fact," Bode said. "It's a fact of life. We will be moving toward cleaner energy that is less expensive."
Bode argues that wind and natural gas are a cost-effective option because coal-fired power plants have to add expensive equipment to comply with pollution control requirements. Even without Congress acting to cap carbon emissions, Bode said, coal-fired utilities must deal with state regulations that are making the fuel source more expensive.
"Many of those plants are going to be spending billions of dollars to try to put very expensive scrubbers on," Bode said. "It is much less expensive to move to natural gas and to wind and renewables because it will save consumers money.
"They would like you to just look at one piece of the affordability picture," Bode said of coal backers. "As a former state regulator, a commissioner, I look at the whole package."
One industry representative disputed Bode's cost conclusion.
"I'm not aware of anyone in the power sector who believes that wind is competitive with fossil fuels" on price, said Jeff Holmstead, who represents coal-fired utilities as a lobbyist at Bracewell & Giuliani and who worked as U.S. EPA air chief during the George W. Bush administration.
New coal plants in Texas and Georgia that have all the latest pollution controls still are less costly than wind power, he said.
Bode argues that you have to look at the subsidies fossil fuels and nuclear power have gotten over the years and factor those into cost analyses. She rattles off the tax help fossil fuel companies get for depletion, tangible drilling costs, nonconventional fuels tax credit other benefits.
"I know these [benefits] because I worked for them," Bode said, explaining she helped get some provisions passed while working for the oil and gas industry. "I think they're good things," she added, because they helped grow those sectors.
"They've had most of those tax benefits since 1929," Bode said. "You've got long-term support for an industry, that helps develop that industry. In the meantime, wind and renewables have lacked a consistent tax credit."
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