Improving the "Pickens Plan"
For the last month, the electronic media has been graced by the weather-beaten face and folksy voice of billionaire oilman-turned-wind-pitchman T. Boone Pickens "splainin'" his plan to reduce U.S. oil imports by 38 percent, thereby lowering the U.S. bill for imported petroleum by $300 billion per year. Pickens envisions the construction of up to eight hundred thousand megawatts of wind-turbine capacity, at a privately funded cost of $1 trillion, from west Texas north to the Canadian border in America's "wind corridor." Those "wind watts" would replace the 22 percent of U.S. electricity now generated with natural gas. The natural gas saved would be used to fuel trucks and cars (particularly fleet vehicles), replacing imported petroleum-based gasoline and diesel.
Pickens is putting his money where his mouth is, demonstrating his belief in the efficacy of swapping "wind watts" for "gas watts." He is footing the multimillion-dollar tab for the national media campaign promoting his plan. Of course, Pickens owns several companies that will benefit from both the construction and operation of the wind turbines and from the switch to natural-gas engines and the construction of a natural-gas delivery infrastructure. But this is America. We need, and should applaud, properly applied self-interest, and we (at least some of us) recognize the societal benefits of Adam Smith's invisible hand.
The Pickens Plan has caught the attention of Democratic politicians, particularly House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, despite the eponym having been the financial force behind the famous "swift boat" ads that sank John Kerry. They see in the wind-focused Pickens Plan a strong counterpoint to the Republicans' increasingly popular chant, "Drill Here, Drill Now, Pay Less."
On the surface, the Pickens Plan seems logical. The U.S. "wind corridor" is indeed the "Saudi Arabia of wind." There easily is enough wind energy sweeping over those sparsely populated plains to generate power on the scale Pickens proposes. Even the $200 billion cost of building transmission lines from the scores of thousands of wind turbines envisioned by the Pickens Plan does not destroy the economics of the plan.
There is one fly in Pickens's ointment, however. Along most of the "wind corridor," the wind blows the strongest and steadiest before the sun rises; its strength diminishes until the hottest point of the day, just as the demand for electricity, particularly in the summer months, peaks. As a result, replacing natural-gas base load capacity with "wind watts" does not work. Peak loads still will have to be met with natural-gas generated electricity. That will diminish by billions of cubic feet the amount of natural gas available to be converted to transportation fuel, defeating the essence of the plan.
The wind corridor is essentially in a single time zone, so morning-wind-generated electricity cannot be "wheeled" to afternoon consumers. Unfortunately, there is no economical way to store wind watts for use later in the diurnal cycle. Wind generated electricity could be used to pump water "uphill" to run hydroelectric plants to meet peak demand, but pairing hydro with wind more than doubles the infrastructure cost.
The solution Pickens, and the rest of America, ultimately seeks is independence from imported petroleum. That solution is right under our collective noses. John McCain has begun to grasp it. It is increased nuclear base load capacity.
John McCain has proposed forty-five new nuclear plants. Power generated by nuclear plants does not depend on finicky wind. It is there 24/7 and can be quickly "wheeled" anywhere in the country it is needed, if the country's electric transmission infrastructure is properly upgraded. Those nuclear watts, which, like wind watts, produce no greenhouse gasses, could offset the power currently produced by burning natural gas, freeing that natural gas to be used, as Pickens suggests, for transportation fuel, replacing imported petroleum.
The cost of building forty-five new nuclear plants is the same as the cost of Pickens's wind turbines. The cost of building the transmission infrastructure for the nukes is less, as the nukes will not be as remotely located as Pickens's turbines. The quality and number of domestic jobs created by both the Pickens Plan and the plan for forty-five new nukes are roughly the same. The amount of imported petroleum saved is the same. The bottom line: nukes work; Pickens falls short.
Jay Zawatsky is chief executive officer of havePower, LLC.