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TribBlog: W. is for Wind

Former President George W. Bush appeared in rousing, joke-cracking form in a rare speech this morning the American Wind Energy Association's conference in Dallas. He praised Texas wind energy, bashed the media, refused to bash his successor and said his grandchildren will be driving electric cars. He also gave away the first line of his forthcoming memoir, a quote from his wife that got him to quit drinking.

George Bush

Former President George W. Bush appeared in rousing, joke-cracking form in a rare speech this morning the American Wind Energy Association's conference in Dallas.

Looking tan and relaxed in a gray suit and blue tie, Bush made clear that he did not miss the bickering — er, the wind — in Washington. "When I got back to Texas, and I looked in the mirror, I knew I didn't sell my soul for politics," Bush said. "I am not interested in generating news, I am not interested in being in the limelight, and I am not interested in criticizing my successor."

Naturally, though, he generated a bit of news — particularly after the speech, when he sank into a comfortable chair with a "Yee-haw!" and responded to several questions from Denise Bode, the head of the wind group. Bush revealed the first line of his forthcoming memoir: "Can you tell me a day in which you have not had a drink?" It's a quote from his wife, Laura, prodding him to quit drinking, which he did. He also expressed regret about a few elements of his presidency, including failure to pass immigration and social security reform. Also, "One of my finest moments was not 'Bring it on,'" he said. His toughest decision? "Adjusting the strategy in Iraq that I knew would be highly unpopular."

Bush assailed the proliferation of media for debasing public discourse. "People have to compete to get noticed, and the best way to get noticed is to say something outrageous, whether it's on TV or the internet," he said. His solution was to turn the TV off. "I didn't watch the news. Hell, I was the news most of the time," he said.

Bush was welcomed enthusiastically at the speech, with an audience of 6,000 giving standing ovations before and after his talk. He chose the venue, presumably, to emphasize a different piece of his legacy than the usual focus, Iraq. When he was governor of Texas, Bush signed the 1999 law that is widely credited with kick-starting wind development in the state. Now, despite deep roots in the oil and gas business, Texas is the national leader in wind energy by far, with nearly three times as much capacity installed as the next-closest state, Iowa. The 1999 law deregulated the electricity markets, but also required Texas to get 2,000 megawatts of electricity from renewable energy by 2009. This year — 2010 — Texas is believed to have passed the 10,000 megawatt mark. The state's renewables requirement, called a renewable portfolio standard, is widely viewed as a model for the industry due to its simplicity.

West Texas academics and entrepreneurs, and even the state, had been studying the wind potential in west Texas as far back as the 1970s. But the big push came after the 1999 law. Bush cited his work with Pat Wood, then chair of the state's Public Utility Commission. "One day I said to Pat Wood ... 'We like wind, go get smart on it.' Now that's not very Shakespearean. But he caught my drift." (Wood went on to become chairman of the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission after Bush became president.)

Bush ticked off several reasons for Texas's success in wind. Among them: "good sound law," a "significant entrepreneurial spirit," low taxes, a reasonable permitting system, and access to transmission lines. Other states, Bush noted, are struggling to build the transmission lines that will carry the wind from remote windy areas to the cities that need it. "There's a big difference between the talkers and the doers, and here in the state of Texas, we are doers," he said.

Bush received blistering criticism for his energy policies during his presidency, not least the secretiveness of the energy task force headed by vice-president Dick Cheney. But he insisted that the record will show that he tried to spark an energy transition. "I think when historians will look back to  the first eight years of the 20th century, I think they will recognize that my administration sought to have a comprehensive energy policy," he said. One state of the union speech, he noted, discussed the need to end America's addiction to oil — a surprising thing coming from a Texan, he added. (And an oilman no less.)

"I think ultimately we're headed for an era in which my grandchildren will be driving electric cars, powered primarily by renewable energy," Bush said. Oil, he said, brings economic, environmental and national-security problems.

Bush also spoke about his presidential library at SMU, which will have a familiar theme. "It will focus on the freedom agenda," he said. "I believe in an ideological struggle against cold-blooded murderers who want to advance their agenda." The SMU library will get a coveted green certification from LEED, short for Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design, Bush said. His home in Crawford also has little-known green features, including geothermal energy and rainwater recycling.

"We've tried to live our life that way, you know, without thumping our chest. We just did it. Not for political purposes, just because we want to live our life," Bush said.

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