T. Boone talks a lot about wind, but gas is what he’s really about

Date: 12 Sep 2008 | posted in: From the Desk of David Morris, The Public Good | 0 Facebooktwitterredditmail

T. Boone talks a lot about wind, but gas is what he’s really about

By David Morris, originally published in the St. Paul Pioneer Press, September 12, 2008

T. Boone Pickens visited St. Paul during the Republican Convention for the same reason he visited Denver during the Democratic Convention —to peddle his energy plan. In both places he received favorable press coverage. And why not? The headline for the story writes itself: “Oilman turns wind-energy advocate.”

Indeed, read about the Pickens Energy Plan and you’d think it was all about wind energy. T. Boone does little to contradict that notion. The Web site for his plan displays nothing but wind turbines.

But expanding wind energy is not the key element in his plan for this simple reason: The plan’s primary goal is to reduce our dependence on oil, and wind-generated electricity does little to move us in that direction, because the electric sector uses very little oil.

The expansion of wind energy is simply the teaser to Pickens’ main proposal: shifting natural gas from power plants to vehicles.

Pickens doesn’t dwell on how natural gas, not wind energy, is the key to his plan. And reporters don’t dwell on it, either. They should, because his proposal is wrongheaded, self-serving and dangerous.

Natural gas power plants are ideal backups to intermittent energy sources like wind. They can be turned on and off quickly and efficiently, unlike coal or nuclear power plants. They are inexpensive to build but expensive to operate, which is why they operate only a few hundred hours a year to meet peak demand. A natural gas backup can enable wind energy to make up a much higher percentage of our electricity.

There’s another reason to reject Pickens’ proposal. Transforming our transportation fleet to natural gas will require massive investments in new engines and fueling systems. And after 15 to 20 years and the expenditure of hundreds of billions of dollars, our new transportation system would still be 100 percent fossil-fueled and dependent on a fuel whose life expectancy is not much longer than oil’s.

A far better plan, and one proposed by a number of groups and individuals, including my own, the Institute for Local Self-Reliance, in a recent report, “Driving Our Way to Energy Independence,” is to power our cars directly with renewable electricity.

Electric vehicles have important advantages over cars powered by natural gas (or gasoline). They are more efficient. They are quiet. They generate no tailpipe emissions.

Moreover, their combined battery storage capacity can allow electricity to be generated when the wind blows and the sun shines and used later. And that could usher in a more democratic energy system where households generate transportation fuel from their rooftops and use their electric vehicles as backup power plants for their homes.

Electrified cars, unlike natural gas vehicles, also have the great advantage of being able to be introduced incrementally. The first generation of plug-in hybrids, for example, which will be introduced by 2010, will have a limited electric-only driving range. As a result, electricity initially might power only 25 percent to 50 percent of the total miles driven. Even then, if the backup engine were biofueled, the total displacement of oil could rise above 85 percent. The next-generation vehicles might use electricity to power 75 percent to 100 percent of total miles driven.

And when we ultimately convert the transportation sector to electricity, an effort that will also cost hundreds of billions of dollars, we will have vehicles capable of being run solely on renewable energy.

In California, Pickens recently made clear his focus on natural gas. The Texas oil and gas billionaire single-handedly financed a ballot initiative that would raise $3 billion for incentives for vehicle owners to switch to cleaner fuels. The initiative favors natural-gas vehicles. The biggest rebates would go toward the purchase of heavy-duty trucks and transit buses fueled by natural gas. Only natural-gas vehicles would qualify for the largest rebate for passenger vehicles — $10,000.

The primary beneficiary of this ballot initiative would be Clean Energy, the nation’s biggest supplier of natural gas for transportation needs. Pickens is majority shareholder of Clean Energy.

Pickens makes no bones that his plan could earn him additional billions. But he argues that his self-interest coincides with the public interest. In the case of his advocacy of wind energy that may be true. It is not true of his advocacy of natural gas as a vehicle fuel.

David Morris is vice president of the Institute for Local Self-Reliance, based in Minneapolis and Washington, D.C.

About ILSR: The Institute for Local Self-Reliance is a nonprofit organization founded in 1974 to advance sustainable, equitable, and community-centered economic development through research and educational activities and technical assistance. More at http://www.ilsr.org

David Morris
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David Morris is co-founder of the Institute for Local Self-Reliance and currently ILSR's distinguished fellow. His five non-fiction books range from an analysis of Chilean development to the future of electric power to the transformation of cities and neighborhoods.  For 14 years he was a regular columnist for the Saint Paul Pioneer Press. His essays on public policy have appeared in the New York TimesWall Street Journal, Washington PostSalonAlternetCommon Dreams, and the Huffington Post.

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