T. Boone Pickens, the legendary Texas oilman, has been on a bit of a media blitz over the past few days, promoting wind-power, of all things. This isn't a new cause for Pickens -- he's a proponent of "peak oil theory", and has been developing an enormous wind farm in Texas for a few years now, after seeing several major international energy companies come into his state and start their own. Over the past few days, Pickens has launched TV ads, a website (PickensPlan), and had an op-ed in yesterday's Wall Street Journal (My Plan to Escape the Grip of Foreign Oil).
His plan to eliminate our dependence on foreign oil focuses on three sources of energy, although for obvious reasons he goes into great detail on only two of them - wind and natural gas.
My plan calls for taking the energy generated by wind and using it to replace a significant percentage of the natural gas that is now being used to fuel our power plants. Today, natural gas accounts for about 22% of our electricity generation in the U.S. We can use new wind capacity to free up the natural gas for use as a transportation fuel. That would displace more than one-third of our foreign oil imports. Natural gas is the only domestic energy of size that can be used to replace oil used for transportation, and it is abundant in the U.S.
That's a commendable long-term goal. Pickens feels that it can be accomplished within 5-10 years, and is putting $10 billion of his own money behind his own wind farm to show his sincerity. But to turn this into a reality, several major infrastructure problems must be solved. And that, in the end, is what this latest media blitz is about. The federal government is going to have to do several things right off the bat; otherwise it looks as if Texas is the only state that is really going to benefit from wind energy.
The government must mandate the formation of wind and solar transmission corridors, and renew the subsidies for economic and alternative energy development in areas where the wind and sun are abundant.
In addition, substantial upgrades to the nation's power grid and delivery systems will have to be undertaken, so that the whole country can take advantage of this new source of power. But there are enormous local political problems associated with this. For two examples, just take a look at Ted Kennedy's crusade against wind power off Cape Cod, and read up on Barney Franks' silly and underhanded maneuvers to derail any attempts to deliver LNG (natural gas) to Southeastern New England (Mr. Frank's Wild River). Note that the opposition to a cleaner energy strategy is coming from the "liberal lions" and usual suspects on the Left -- the same people and groups that one would assume would be backing these types of projects.
It's important to note, however, that the Pickens Plan represents part of the solution for our long-term energy needs. It does not represent a solution for our shorter-term oil and gasoline price and supply problem. Pickens recognizes this, and so includes this throwaway line in his op-ed this morning:
Drilling in the outer continental shelf should be considered as well, as we need to look at all options, recognizing that there is no silver bullet.
While it is nice to think of natural gas powered vehicles cruising along our highways, those would all be new, expensive vehicles. Realistically, a big deal has already been made over the past few years about cars that use natural gas as a fuel source, yet there hasn't been much of a corresponding demand for such vehicles from consumers. There are over 250,000,000 gasoline-powered vehicles in the United States today, and those vehicles, and their owners, need affordable gasoline.
In addition, we should note that Pickens' main objective is developing wind power to generate electricity that would power our industry and homes. There are currently no mass produced wind-powered automobiles, nor will there ever be.
The Left will run with the Pickens Plan and use it to argue against more domestic oil drilling. The Right will appreciate Pickens' capitalistic instinct, but also recognize that it is a part of the solution, not the solution. The Left will probably end up opposing much of this down the road (see Kennedy and Frank examples, above).
The plan doesn't answer the public's cry for cheaper gasoline now.
There's no getting around it: if we want cheaper gasoline and oil in the near future we must increase domestic oil production now. Somehow, I don't think Pickens would have a problem with that.
Thomas Lifson adds:
I am skeptical about the upper end predictions of the potential of wind power. The wind is not a constant source of power, so it cannot provide base load power. We will still need coal, hydro, and other conventional sources for the cake. Wind can only be the frosting. There is a lot of maintenance involved when you have a power source that switches direction and intensity. Wind farms also can kick up a fair amount of dust in places where the soil is dry.
Natural gas does have potential for vehicles, though. However, there are obstacles to distribution. Liquefied natural gas can be handled safely, but a lot of people are risk averse over the explosive potential in case of accidents.
I respect and admire T. Boone Pickens, but I see the problem as more complicated.