September 8, 2008

Blowing Into Duke City

By Copyright 2008 Albuquerque Journal By John Fleck Journal Staff Writer

The wind blowing across the plains of eastern New Mexico is like a vast oil field, a supply of energy just waiting to be tapped. What we lack is the power lines to get it to the people whose computers and flat panel TVs await -- the vast growing energy sinks of Phoenix, Las Vegas and L.A.

Into that brink has stepped Texas oilman T. Boone Pickens, with a national campaign to use wind power from middle America, including New Mexico, to help break U.S. addiction to foreign oil.

"Our main energy problem begins and ends with imported oil," Pickens told members of the U.S. Senate at a June hearing. Pickens wants us to vastly increase the electricity we get from wind. Domestically produced natural gas currently being used to generate electricity could then be used to power vehicles, reducing our demand for oil, he argues.

"Domestic natural gas is better than imported oil," Pickens said at the June Senate hearing where he rolled out the plan.

He calls it "The Pickens Plan," and he is pushing it aggressively, with television ads and a road show that includes a town hall meeting Wednesday in Albuquerque.

He is frank about his economic motives. He has big wind power interests in Texas and hopes to expand them.

The plan has gotten high marks from both environmentalists and energy policy analysts, but experts say the devil in the details makes implementation anything but easy.

It's "great to see a major investor taking this path," said Dan Kammen, an energy analyst at the University of California, Berkeley.

Kammen said Pickens' embrace of wind makes largescale economic sense.

But Kammen adds a common criticism of Pickens' idea: that the second part of the Pickens Plan -- shifting to natural gas to fuel our cars -- is unrealistic without a large-scale natural gas vehicle fueling infrastructure in place.

Far more likely, said Kammen and others, is putting wind- generated electricity directly into our cars, in the form of battery- charged plugin hybrids likely to begin appearing in the U.S. auto market in the next few years.

"The infrastructure costs are very high for natural gas fueling of cars," Kammen said. Rather than building a new, large-scale natural gas infrastructure to fuel up cars, we should piggyback on the existing consumer electric grid to fuel our cars.

"Your car can be plugged in, and if the wind blows, you charge your car," said Mike Hightower, an energy analyst at Sandia National Laboratories.

At a time when drilling for oil dominates the U.S. political energy discourse, Pickens has played an odd role.

A lifetime oilman, the 80-year-old Pickens has said repeatedly he has no objection to increased U.S. oil drilling. But in an interview last week on MSNBC, he said the additional drilling is not the answer to our energy problem.

Instead, the petroleum geologist-turned energy entrepreneur believes wind is the answer.

"We have the best wind in the world," Pickens said during his June Senate testimony. "It's time to get serious about using it."

The key problem, according to Pickens and others, is that the wind is located far from the centers of growing electricity demand, and the power lines to get it from Point A to Point B simply don't exist.

"There's tons of wind in the Great Plains, and there's nobody around but cows," Hightower said. A Department of Energy study released earlier this year shows a vast swath of untapped wind resources from the Dakotas south through Texas and Eastern New Mexico.

But the problem of wind in Eastern New Mexico offers a useful case study in the gap between available U.S. wind resources and our ability to use them.

Utility company PNM has a major transmission line running from the state's east side into the Albuquerque metro area that is big enough to carry a rapidly growing base of wind generation being used to meet local needs.

But to export wind power would require far larger power lines, said Greg Miller, who manages PNM's transmission system.

Developers have proposed far more wind power in eastern New Mexico than the current power lines could carry, Miller said.

"It's going to take major transmission development to realize this full potential that New Mexico has," Miller said in a recent interview.

Even if New Mexico transmission capacity were expanded, lines would be needed across intervening states to get the power to the population centers where the electricity would be used, Miller noted. "It's really a regional issue," he said.

Who might build those new lines remains unclear. There is commercial interest. Pickens himself is pushing a cross-Texas line to carry power from a wind farm in the Texas panhandle to the state's big-city regions to the east.

But Pickens and others acknowledge that the need can't be met by single-state transmission solutions.

A study by a group of Sandia researchers suggested a national grid modeled along the lines of the interstate highway system.

Pickens agrees. He acknowledges that the costs of such a grid would be enormous, but he told the Senate he believes it could be paid for with private-sector money, given the proper tax incentives. And he said the cost in the end is tiny compared to the amount of money we currently send each year to foreign oil suppliers.

"All the numbers that we keep coming up with are so minuscule compared to what we are paying for foreign oil," he said. If you go

WHAT: Pickens Plan Town Hall Meeting


10:30 a.m. (doors open at 9:30 a.m.) Wednesday


Albuquerque Convention Center


(c) 2008 Albuquerque Journal. Provided by ProQuest LLC. All rights Reserved.