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Meet the would-be N-power king

Published November 4, 2007 12:26 am

This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2007, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.

He has been a vegetarian restaurateur, worked for a company that sells Viagra online, and tried to fix your kids, before moving into energy consulting.

Now Rep. Aaron Tilton wants to split the atom, as he proposes the most ambitious energy project in Utah's history.

The Springville Republican and father of two is CEO of Transition Power Development, LLC, a company that wants to build at least two 1,500 megawatt nuclear power plants in the state, with early signs indicating they are looking at land near the Green River in Emery County.

It is the most recent incarnation for the 35-year-old self-taught businessman, whose eclectic background has just recently, and almost entirely by chance, landed him in the nuclear energy realm.

"Ever since I got out of high school I never had a big desire to work for anybody," he says.

He enrolled in some classes at Brigham Young University, but never attended. Instead, a friend's parents sold him their vegetarian restaurant in Provo - Govinda's Buffet & Health Bar. He hated it and bailed out three months later.

He did construction work for a few years before going on a Mormon mission to Washington, D.C.

He returned to create Rockberry.org, which marketed "Let's Fix Our Kids," a series of audio tapes and online and at-home coaching for parents with troubled kids.

But Rockberry ran into its own trouble.

Tilton says the funding dried up when the dot-com bubble burst. Rockberry folded and one creditor ended up suing for over $146,733. Tilton paid $700 to settle the complaint, records show.

From there, Tilton moved in several directions.

He went to work in a pharmacy business, selling automated voice-recognition systems to fill prescriptions, before ending up as director of business development for PCM Ventures I, which runs the online pharmacy KwikMed.com.

KwikMed allows consumers to get a prescription and order Viagra, Cialis, Propecia or Levitra online and have it delivered to their homes, thanks to a unique deal the company struck with Utah regulators. Sen. Peter Knudson sponsored a bill last year to do away with online prescriptions, but it was defeated in the Senate; Tilton never voted on the measure.

In 2002, about the same time Tilton got into the pharmacy business, a friend was looking to invest some money and Tilton's father, who had worked as a pipefitting engineer at power plants, suggested they look at the energy industry.

"I said, 'What? I don't know anything about power plants,' " Tilton says, but they toyed with buying a small power plant at the defunct Geneva Steel before deciding against it. The research, however, kick-started Tilton's interest in energy.

"I started looking at that and really started studying the power industry," he says. "From that project, I figured out there was [about to be] a very significant growth in power needs."

He started looking for energy projects in the West that would work, and ended up consulting on a coal-power project in Sigurd, Utah, and some projects in Wyoming's Powder River Basin.

Then, in 2004, disgusted with what he paid in state taxes and believing he could do better, Tilton decided to run against Rep. Calvin Bird. Beating an incumbent is a daunting challenge, but Tilton says he worked hard knocking on doors and met with delegates before he caught a break.

While campaigning one evening in May, his cell phone rang and a reporter gave him the news: Bird had been arrested for soliciting sex from a prostitute and would quit the Legislature.

"I stopped knocking on doors, got in my car and went home," Tilton says.

Gov. Olene Walker appointed him to Bird's seat after Bird resigned. Tilton retained the seat in 2004 and was re-elected in 2006.

In the Legislature, Tilton is a predictably solid conservative Utah County Republican. He has sponsored legislation to help block gay clubs in schools, prevent government from taking property for trails or recreation areas, and would have made it difficult for environmental groups to challenge energy and road projects.

He is vice-chairman of the pro-industry group Americans For American Energy, which advocates domestic energy production.

Tilton got a seat on the Legislature's energy advisory panel and on Gov. Jon Huntsman Jr.'s climate-change panel, where he quietly urged his colleagues to support exploration of nuclear power.

Tim Wagner, an energy advocate with the Sierra Club, served on both panels with Tilton, and was unimpressed. Tilton, he said, used his seat on the committee to demean advocates for renewable power, has been dismissive of opposing viewpoints and often doesn't bother paying attention in meetings.

"If I would have to sum him up in one word, it would be 'arrogant,' " Wagner said.

Through his service in the Legislature, Tilton met Rep. Mike Noel, which ultimately led to the creation of Transition Power.

In 2006, Noel had backed the inclusion of nuclear power in the state's energy policy and he took a drubbing from opponents and on editorial pages. Those press clippings found their way to Tom Retson, a North Carolina energy consultant who had spent 23 years in General Electric's nuclear division.

Retson contacted Noel to pat him on the back and offer his expertise, then met him on a ski trip to the state, where Noel introduced him to Tilton.

"It was almost an immediate meeting of the minds," says Retson. "He has [energy] experience. It's not long-lived, but . . . he's a young man with a lot of positive energy, intelligence, a quick learner, and obviously his experience within the state government is important."

After months of discussions, they formed Transition Power on Feb. 2. It was not, Retson says, a case of a company with deep pockets putting them up to pushing nuclear power.

"Aaron and I are the birth fathers of this thing and that's literally true. There's no wizard behind the curtain," Retson says.

Tilton says he brings to the table his management skills, self-taught through his years of business experience.

"Managing this project is an art more than a skill that can be taught," he said. "If there's something I don't know, I can find somebody who knows it."

Those experts include Nils Diaz, the former chairman of the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission, and Reed Searle, director of the Intermountain Power Agency, which generates coal power, mostly for Southern California. Both are partners in Transition Power.

Last month, at a legislative meeting, Tilton took the unusual step of testifying on his nuclear project before a committee on which he sits. Critics were outraged, blasting Tilton for what they viewed as a clear conflict of interest. Tilton says he didn't vote on any legislation to help his company, so he's clean under Utah's law.

But the stir made headlines that he says have actually helped his company: Investors from Utah and elsewhere are lining up to give his company money.