July 29, 2008
Pickens Tilting at Windmills
By Jack Z. Smith
McClatchy NewspapersAn inept, polarized Congress appears incapable of passing significant energy legislation this year despite the powerful political incentive provided by $4 gasoline.
Of course, we're talking about the same body that took more than a decade to come up with a seriously overdue upgrade of vehicle fuel economy standards, finally approved in December.
Our underperforming "leaders" in Washington are being shown up by an 80-year-old Texan who is far more fast-acting and quick- thinking.
That's T. Boone Pickens of Dallas, the billionaire hedge fund manager and one-time Amarillo independent oilman who made the covers of national magazines in the 1980s as a "corporate raider" (a term he hated) by pressing major oil companies to be more accountable to shareholders.
In a brief video viewable at www.pickensplan.com, Pickens outlines his ambitious new energy plan. While it faces tough hurdles, it's more coherent and potentially significant than anything Congress has adopted this year on the energy front.
Here, in a nutshell, is Pickens' idea to help free the United States from its increasingly burdensome reliance on imported oil, an expense he puts at a staggering $700 billion annually.
America should harness the breezes in its central "wind corridor" running from North Dakota to Texas, so that wind power generates at least 20 percent of the nation's electricity, a level the U.S. Department of Energy claims could be achieved by 2030. Wind power currently generates only 1.5 percent of electricity, but is growing by leaps and bounds.
Achieving the 20 percent goal for wind power would free up much of America's natural gas supplies (now used in electricity generation) to power vehicles ranging from cars to buses. Freeing natural gas to fuel vehicles would slash gasoline consumption and therefore reduce our need for oil, from which gasoline is made.
The result could be a 38 percent reduction in oil imports, shrinking our annual tab for foreign crude by roughly $300 billion, says Pickens, who presented his plan last week to a congressional committee. He wants Washington to provide financial incentives to help make it happen.
Pickens is putting his money where his mouth is. He's spending $58 million to publicize his plan. He's bought a natural gas- powered Honda Civic GX. He's the largest shareholder in Clean Energy Fuels, which supplies natural-gas powered fleets such as buses and taxis.
Pickens' Mesa Power is the lead investor in a massive $10 billion project to build the "world's largest wind farm" - 2,700 giant turbines in thinly populated Gray, Roberts, Hemphill, Wheeler and Carson counties in the Texas Panhandle.
Pickens' energy plan would face enormous obstacles. Skeptics doubt that wind power can ever account for 20 percent of electricity generation, noting that in places such as West Texas, the wind often blows little on torrid summer days when power is most needed.
Others stress that conversion of natural gas to widespread vehicle use would require an enormous and costly network of natural gas fueling stations.
Those are realistic concerns. But wind power is growing dramatically, getting relatively cheaper compared with fossil fuels and could benefit from future technology gains.
There's also little doubt that considerably more vehicles could be fueled by natural gas than the 142,000 nationally that Pickens says now use it.
He describes his plan as only a "bridge" to help America meet its energy needs over the next 20-plus years while transitioning to new technologies such as totally electric and hydrogen fuel cell vehicles.
At the least, his plan represents laudably innovative thinking and a plausible strategy for reducing our reliance on foreign oil. Compared to what Congress has accomplished this year on the energy front, Pickens' plan is pretty impressive.
Jack Z. Smith is an editorial writer for the Fort Worth Star- Telegram (e-mail: [email protected]).
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