Friday, July 11, 2008

Pickens Plan for Energy Independence Is Short of Hot Air, Houston Analyst Charges

So what’s good for T. Boone Pickens is good for the USA? The veteran Texas oil billionaire certainly thinks so. His just-introduced Pickens Plan for U.S. energy independence would substitute wind power to generate the 22% of electricity now fueled by natural gas—and use the same natural gas to power vehicles instead of gasoline.

But a Houston Chronicle business columnist disagrees.
Loren Steffy says the plan won’t work, because there’s not enough wind in the hottest months: “A recent study by Cambridge Energy Research Associates found that wind power is least available between June and September, the peak months for electricity consumption.”

Steffy also notes that Pickens is already heavily involved in businesses that build wind farms and provide natural gas for vehicles. He says he doesn’t begrudge him his profits and he credits Pickets with at least getting the country talking about energy policy.

Pickens has certainly made a big splash announcing his plan. Pickens is everywhere on the talk-show circuit. His TV advertising blitz has been as relentless as a presidential campaign—and it directly challenges both nominees to take energy policy seriously, as columnists like Thomas Friedman and Charles Krauthammer as been pleading for decades. It’s quite impressive when a businessman who has spent an entire career making money from oil says that the current emergency is not one we can drill ourselves out of.

The Pickens Plan website is spiffy and very user friendly. It includes videos that combine a Pickens lecture at a white board with slick animated graphics, like Al Gore in An Inconvenient Truth, explaining that if we keep purchasing 70% of our oil from other countries at the current price per barrel it will cost $700 billion a year, making it the largest transfer of wealth in the recorded history of the planet.

Besides other videos, the website includes a video blog of daily pep talks by Pickens, information on promotional events scheduled nationally, ways for the public to join Pickens' "army," and a forum that at this writing has 61 pages listing discussion strings initiated by registered users (nearly 30,000).

I have no way of ascertaining if seasonal variations in wind are the fatal flaw Steffy thinks they are. His column has generated 90 comments on the Chronicle website so far. About five pages into the comments a reader with the screen name
Xebec suggests that any conclusion reached by Cambridge Energy Research Associates should be taken with a grain of salt, because CERA is owned by IHS, whose clients are mainly fossil fuel industries. Few other comments address the wind issue directly, although another reader notes that wind turbines might also be located in the Gulf of Mexico, even in conjunction with oil rigs.

One of the discussion strings on Pickens’ website is entitled “
What happens on a calm hot day?” It has five pages of comments that address that issue, but no one there seems aware of Steffy’s column. The bloggers express general agreement that there’s less wind from June through September, but they have ideas to get around that that might make Pickens’ plan workable.

They note, for instance, that the wind is always blowing somewhere in the United States, and they too suggest that turbines might be located in more places than the Texas to North Dakota swath that Pickens describes.

They also suggest that there are feasible ways to store the energy generated by wind power when the electrical grid is calling for less of it. One innovative plan would use it to pump compressed air into empty underground caverns and release it to power turbines when needed. Obviously the feasibility and cost of such ideas need to be researched.

Hopefully Pickens will find a way to address Steffy’s criticism directly and convincingly. It seems pretty clear that unless Pickens can show where the wind is coming from to generate electricity in the hottest third of the year, the whole basis of his plan is deflated beyond repair.

No comments: