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Thursday, July 10, 2008

T. Boone Pickens got it half right

Billionaire Texas oilman and corporate takeover artist T. Boone Pickens has been all over the news these last few months about his plan to spend $10 billion on a massive 4,000 megawatt wind farm in Texas. Last month Fast Company magazine ran a piece on the Pickens plan, where the Texas tycoon candidly stated that he was doing it "for the money" and that environmentally benefits were only secondary objectives. Fair enough. Most recently, Pickens launched an internet marketing campaign of his efforts, which includes a website and youtube campaign that highlights his plan for energy independence.

Here is the video presentation from the website:

And the full presentation of his plan from youtube:

On one hand, I think it is a great thing when someone who has the wealth of Mr. Pickens invests in a clean energy endeavor of this magnitude, but I think Mr. Pickens's commitment to natural gas vehicles (NGV) as the solution to eliminate our dependence on foreign oil is a major folly. Why would we spend billions to swap dependence on one fossil fuel source for another?

Here are just a few of problems with Mr. Pickens's plan:

  • Under the Pickens plan for energy independence, the US would still be at the mercy of the supply of a fossil fuel since he wishes to switch our vehicles over to natural gas fuel. Peak production of natural gas is supposed to happen a decade or two after the global peak of oil, meaning we will end up scrambling once again to find an alternative to a fossil fuel.
  • Natural Gas vehicles reduce emissions 20% compared to standard gasoline powered vehicles. This is good but why not shoot for something like hydrogen fuel cell vehicles or electric cars that are fueled by clean energy sources like his wind farms?
  • The lack of infrastructure for natural gas vehicles is a huge hurdle. If we are to invest the billions we need in new refueling stations why not just spend that money on hydrogen fueling infrastructure??
Fellow green blogger and Energy Collective member Joseph Romm shares an interview he gave on the subject with a major cable network. Mr. Romm called the Pickens plan "Half brilliant, half dumb." I encourage you to check it out.

Katie Fehrenbacher posted a great primer on NGVs over at Earth2Tech titled The 10 Things you need to know about Natural Gas Vehicles.

As the title of this post says, I believe T. Boone Pickens is half right. On his website you will see his map showing the United States's capacity for wind energy - he is correct in asserting that we need major investments in wind energy before we even come close to our potential for wind energy production. One challenge that could hold up wind energy developments is the need to add new transmission lines to carry the new electricity generated by the wind turbines on an already aging and outdated power grid. I don't think that one is a showstopper, however, and I think that if the US were to invest billions into large scale wind projects in the central US, and large scale solar plants in the southwest, we will be able to generate 100% of our electricity needs through clean energy. (In case you were wondering, fuel cells can be used to generate electricity when the sun isn't shining or the wind isn't blowing).

Mr Pickens would have really been onto something if he instead insisted on powering electric vehicles with all of that new wind power. Electric vehicles are already here, and as Tesla has shown they are a legitimate replacement for gasoline powered vehicles. Something tells me, however, that T. Boones Pickens, a former wildcatter, has more to gain financially if we replaced our gasoline powered vehicles with NGV instead of electric vehicles. Just a hunch.


EdHeath said...

I haven't thought about this systemically, but people are going to want to hold onto their gas burners for as long as possible. We are going to need multiple sorts of refueling stations if we oscillate between a bio fuel replacement for gasoline, natural gas, hydrogen and electric power for our vehicles. The plug in vehicles are going to need a fast charging battery, one that take no longer than a current stop at a gas station. Good luck with that. Still, that is the challenge. Remember, the Tesla is a legitimate replacement for a gas-powered vehicle only if you have hundred grand and how long does it take to recharge? It is absolutely a step in the right direction, and if they rip off Chevy’s idea of putting in a small gas motor (that could run on biodiesel) to recharge the batteries continuously (and use regenerative breaking), they may get us more than half way there. Using mass production techniques may get us most of the rest of the way.

Schultz said...


Fortune magazine has a cover story this month on the new Tesla motors' EV. Tesla has already announced a $50k sedan due out in 2010 and will eventually announce a more affordable option with a price tag in the neighborhood of $30k. I agree that the ultimate solution needs to allow people to drive long distances without having to recharge the vehicle overnight. The thing to remember when comparing the Chevy Volt is that the Volt gets around 40 miles per charge while the new Tesla gets over 200. I'm not sure if the GM folks did that on purpose, but had the Volt been a 200 mile per charge vehicle with the small gas tank they might have had a car that was enough to get GM out of the hole.

Good to see that cognitive dissonance in Pittsburgh (and beyond) is actively discussing the oil and energy crisis. Did you like the book Oil on the Brain?

Scotty said...

There is a Public Forum for discussions about Pickens Energy Plan
Cheers !

EdHeath said...

Well, I am still a bit suspicious. I will believe the $50,000 and $30,000 Tesla's when they roll out. I mean, I really hope they do, but electric cars still have a ways to go before they will gain mass acceptance. Plus it would be nice if we could also work harder on our inferstructure to get cleaner electric (solar and wind) on line to power the electric cars.

I did enjoy "Oil on the Brain", and although I have had a long standing interest in our energy situation, it is part of the reason I am blogging on oil. I am now draggin my tail through "The Omnivore's Dilema", which is actually pretty related to oil and energy issues. Did you see the Nova episode on new car technology? It was hosted by NPR's Click and Clack, and very interesting. In particular there was a segment on using the non-food parts of a corn plant for cellulose based ethanol.

EdHeath said...

Oh, also, how fast does the little motor in the Volt recharge the batteries? Is it doing it on the fly?

Schultz said...

Ed - the Volt takes about 6 hours to fully recharge. For a full recharge Tesla says "worst case scenario" is 3.5 hours. Plus, the Tesla goes 220 miles on a full charge versus 45 or 50 miles for the Volt. I hope Teslsa low end model can still achieve 200+ miles per charge, and since they aren't going for performance I would expect the low end model to go much further than the roadster does on a single charge.