What's gotten into T. Boone Pickens? Apparently, a lot of wind and gas. Anyone who has watched any amount of cable television lately has seen his commercial, which concludes:
"I've been an oil man my life, but this is one emergency we can't drill our way out of. I have a plan..."
Not only does he have a plan, but Pickens also has a flair for the theatrical. He has adopted the Deomocrat talking point that "we can't drill our way out of this" and is repeating it every time the ad airs, which, if the Fox News Channel is any indicator, is quite often. But like so many Democrat mantras, it's a canard.
So what is the Pickens Plan? Basically, it's to switch from gasoline to natural gas as a motor fuel and replace the natural gas and coal we have been using for heating and generation of electricity with wind power. Doing this, Pickens contends, will buy us time to develop other technologies, presumably solar and hydrogen.
It's a plan with many problems, but using more natural gas to fuel our vehicles is not one of them. It's true that natural gas is, as Pickens' website argues, the cleanest-burning transportation fuel available today. It's even cleaner than such renewables as ethanol and biodiesel. It's not a problem for automakers to produce vehicles powered by natural gas, as Honda is already doing so, and municipalities are buying up buses and other fleet vehicles powered by natual gas as fast as manufacturers can produce them. Older diesel-powered vehicles can be converted to run on natural gas, and gasoline engines can be converted to run on propane, which is closely related to natural gas.
All that's needed to move from gasoline to natural gas as a motor fuel, besides the commitment to do it, is infrastructure. The transmission facilities are mostly in place, but a national network of refueling stations would have to be built. Oklahoma leads the nation in natural gas refueling infrastructure, and its system could serve as a model for the rest of the nation.
And natural gas is an American national treasure. As Pickens' website points out, we produce 98% of the the natural gas that we use here in the good ol' USA. Our natural gas reserves are double that of our petroleum reserves. But while I think we should definately use much more of our natural gas resources as a motor fuel, I don't think that we should put all of our domestic motor fuel eggs into one basket, as the Pickens Plan does.
Where Pickens' idea really falls apart, though, is its reliance on wind for electrical power generation. A large part of the problem is that, again, Pickens puts all the eggs in one basket. It makes more sense to me to use whatever means of providing power that are appopriate to given situations and geographical regions. Some places are better than others for wind, solar, wave or geothermal power, for example.
Moreover, wind power does have its disadvantages. The wind does not constantly blow, and it varies in strength from still air to gale force. So wind turbines do not produce the same amount of electricity all the time. There will be times when they provide no electricity at all.
Wind turbines generate more than power. They are noisy. Each one can generate the same level of noise as a car travelling at 70 mph. They can be harmful to migratory birds who sometimes fly right into the blades and get sliced and diced. Also, ice collects on those big turbine blades, and when they start spinning, they can fling very large chunks of it off to distances of up to 1,500 feet. You don't want to be around a wind farm when that happens.
Pollution is produced in the manufacture of wind turbines, so they do leave a sort of "footprint" on the environment. Wind turbines and the transformers associated with them use motor oil. Up to 200 gallons of motor oil for lubrication and cooling can be contained in one large-scale turbine, and up to 500 gallons of oil can be present in the transformers at the base of the turbines. The substation transformers where a group of turbines connects to the grid contain over 10,000 gallons of oil each.
Many turbines collected in large "wind farms" are required to meet the electrical power needs of even small towns. The larger available turbines today can only keep about 500 homes supplied with electricity, even when running at full capacity. Do the math, and you quickly see that a large farm of 200 turbines would be required for a modest city with a population of 100,000. And that is just homes. Additional turbines would be required to provide power for business and industrial customers.
But the biggest disadvantage of wind power is the NIMBY (Not In My Back Yard) factor. Not everyone sees the beauty in large wind turbines, considering them ugly structures which add visual pollution to the landscape. Even the heroes of America's environmentalists don't want wind farms in their line of sight, as we learned from the battle the Kennedys have waged aginst a plan to put a wind farm just eight miles from the family compound's back yard. Since the only places that people don't object to as potential sites for wind farms are places where people don't live, the cost of transmitting that power to where it can be used goes up. In this writer's opinion, wind (like solar) is better suited to rural applications for farms, ranches and neighborhood cooperatives than large-scale applications.
The Pickens website boasts that Denmark gets 20% of its power from wind turbines. But what the site doesn't tell us is that Denmark hasn't shut down any conventional power plants. In other words, wind power in Denmark has supplemented, not replaced, existing power facilities. Those older power plants are needed for times when the wind isn't blowing. So when the wind is up, the power they generate is usually a surplus and sold to other countries at a discount. During extended periods of still air, Denmark must import electricity. According to AWEO, a group opposed to wind power, Norway commissioned a study of wind power in Denmark and concluded that it has "serious environmental effects, insufficient production, and high production costs."
So why is Pickens pushing so hard for wind power despite its known problems? Beyond the fact that he has personally invested very heavily in it, I just don't know. He has put over $12 Billion into his Texas wind farm. Like Al Gore, Pickens has set himself up to profit from what he preaches.
Should Gore worry about being upstaged by Pickens? Not so much. Their approaches to our energy situation are quite different. Gore is coming from the environmental side. Even though he talks about energy independence, he's still trying to convince us that global warming is not only man-made, but it will be the end of the world as we know it if allowed to continue. Pickens is more focused on energy independence, even if his plan for achieving it is severely flawed. What Gore and Pickens have in common is that they are both grandstanding snake oil salesmen who are being disingenuous.
I'm an "all of the above" energy advocate. I say make gasoline (and diesel) out of coal and biomass, while ramping up domestic oil drilling and building new refineries. Remove the subsidies and tariffs from ethanol and let it stand on its own. Greatly expand our current paltry one percent use of natural gas and propane as motor fuels. Continue developing electric hybrids and hydrogen fuel cells. Take the cooking oil that fish and chips were fried in and make biodiesel out of it. Build new nuclear power plants. Use wind and solar power in those places and situations where it makes sense to do so. Do it all. When it comes to domestic energy, diversity is a good thing. Let all the resources compete in the marketplace, and may the best fuels win.