Texas oilman T. Boone Pickens launched a media blitz this week to announce his plan for us “to escape the grip of foreign oil.” Now he’s got himself stuck between a crock and a wind farm.
Announced via TV commercials, media interviews, a Wall Street Journal op-ed (July 9) and a web site, Pickens wants to substitute wind power for the natural gas currently used to produce about 22 percent of our electricity and then to substitute natural gas for the conventional gasoline currently used to power vehicles.
Pickens claims this plan can be accomplished within 10 years, reduce our dependence on foreign oil, reduce the cost of transportation, create thousands of new jobs, reduce our carbon footprint, and “build a bridge to the future, giving us time to develop new technologies.”
It sounds great and gets even better, according to Pickens.
Don’t sweat the cost, he says, “It will be accomplished solely through private investment with no new consumer or corporate taxes or government regulation.”
What’s not to like?
First, it’s worth noting Pickens’ claim made in the op-ed that his plan requires no new government regulation. Two sentences later, however, he calls on Congress to “mandate” wind power and its subsidies.
Next, Pickens relies on a 2008 Department of Energy study claiming the U.S. could generate 20 percent of its electricity from wind by 2030.
Setting aside the fact that the report was produced in consultation with the wind industry, the 20-by-2030 goal is quite fanciful. Even if wind technology significantly improves, electrical transmission systems (how electricity gets from the power source to you) are greatly expanded, and environmental obstacles (like environmentalists who protest wind turbines as eyesores and bird-killing machines) can be overcome, the viability of wind power depends on where, when and how strong the wind blows—none of which are predictable.
Wind farm siting depends on the long-term forecasting of wind patterns—but climate is always changing. When it comes to wind power, it is not simply, “build it and the wind will come.”
Even the momentary loss of wind can be a problem. As Reuters reported on Feb. 27, “Loss of wind causes Texas power grid emergency.” The electric grid operator was forced to curtail 1,100 megawatts of power to customers within 10 minutes.
Wind isn’t a standalone power source. It needs a Plan B for when the wind “just don’t blow.”
This contrasts with coal- or gas-fired electrical power which can be produced on demand and as needed. A great benefit of modern technology is that it liberates us from Mother Nature’s harsh whims. Pickens wants to re-enslave us with 12th century technology.
Then there’s the cost of the 20-by-2030 goal—$43 billion more than the cost of non-wind assets, according to DOE—and this doesn’t include many billions of dollars more for additional transmission lines.
Could the 20-by-2030 goal even be accomplished?
According to Electric Utility Week (June 9), a DOE official informed attendees at a June wind industry meeting that reaching the goal would entail replicating the entire existing U.S. wind system (about 17,000 megawatts of capacity constructed over the past decade) every year starting in 2018.
What about Pickens’ plan to shift us into natural gas vehicles?
Well, they cost a lot more: an extra $3,000 to $6,000 for cars and $30,000 to $40,000 for buses and trucks. There are only about 1,300 natural gas refueling stations in the U.S., as compared to about 180,000 conventional gas stations—that’s a lot of infrastructure to build and finance.
Will Pickens’ plan reduce our dependence on foreign oil? Doubtful.
Even if the fleet of natural gas-powered vehicles is enlarged, the bulk of existing and new vehicles will continue to depend for the foreseeable future on gasoline. Americans currently own about 260 million vehicles, a total that grows by more than 3 million new vehicles every year. Turnover is low as about 60 percent are owned for more than seven years.
Besides, as demand for natural gas increases, so will prices. In the Washington, D.C. area, natural gas is already about two-thirds as costly as gasoline—and that’s with hardly any demand.
None of these facts and circumstances are new to Pickens. So what’s up with him?
Not only does Pickens’ firm, BP capital, have significant investments in natural gas, but last June he announced plans to build the world’s largest wind farm in west Texas, capable of producing 4,000 megawatts of electricity.
The federal government currently subsidizes wind farm operators with a tax credit worth 1.9 cents per kilowatt hour—potentially making for a tidy annual taxpayer gift to Pickens based on his anticipated capacity.
But all is not well in Wind Subsidy-land.
Since Congress didn’t renew the wind subsidy as part of the 2007 energy bill, it will expire at the end of this year unless reauthorized.
Subsidies are perhaps more important to the wind industry that wind itself. Without them, wind can’t compete against fossil fuel-generated power. As pointed out by the Atlanta Journal-Constitution (July 9), “In 1999, 2001 and 2003, when Congress temporarily killed the credits, the number of new turbines dropped dramatically.”
It’s little wonder that Pickens is waging a $58 million PR campaign to promote his plan. If it works, his short-term gain will be saving the tax credit and his wind farm investment. In the long-term, he stands to line his already overflowing pockets with hard-earned taxpayer dollars.
What will the rest of us get from this T. Boone-doggle? That’s anybody’s guess, but it probably won’t be cheaper energy, energy independence or a cleaner environment.