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November 26, 2008

Pickens Plan: Is the Message Devolving?

Category: Climate Change,Energy Independence,Take Actions – Tom Harrison – 11:03 am

A while back T. Boone Pickens announced a plan to build wind farms, then solar concentrators, all built on new smart energy grid infrastructure that would run up he middle of the US. For transportation we would move to compressed natural gas (CNG) to bridge the technology gap until fuel cells and electric drive cars were ready. It’s a bold 10-year plan. It sounds pretty good. In fact, his website has folksy guitar music and pictures of wind turbines. But something isn’t right.

It sounds in many ways like what Al Gore and the We Campaign promoted last summer. And also similar to what the incoming Obama administration proposes. And each of these is a good part of what Lester Brown says we should do in his book Plan B 3.0.

All the plans are bold and put short time frames on their implementations, mostly 10 years. This alone helps people see the parallels to the 10 year program to put a man on the moon: it seemed impossible yet got done in less than 9 years.

But there’s a sort of gassy smell about Pickens’ version.

I have been watching and listening to Pickens. What initially sounded great to me is losing a lot of it’s gloss. During the primaries and presidential campaign, it was clear that he wasn’t picking sides, which is fine. I accept his idea of using CNG to power vehicles; it’s not as bad as oil, and we have more of it in the US. I also accept that if he can make his next billion, this way, all power to him (pun not originally intended).

But there’s a difference, and the more I hear, the more I understand. Lester Brown’s “Plan B” is a global solution to several related global problems: population, food, and energy. Obama’s direction is, as you might expect, directed at the USA: energy independence, economic transformation, jobs, and yes, climate change. Gore’s plan is specific: fight climate change by moving to 100% clean electricity in 10 years in the US. Pickens wants the energy independence in 10 years, and will do whatever it takes to get there.

More fundamentally, Pickens’ plan is not backed by a need to address climate change. There’s little doubt that the plan would be a huge step. But the more I think, the more I think that energy, energy independence and climate change are inextricably linked. A plan that helps “by chance” is fine, as long as it doesn’t interfere with more unified plans that consider the larger policy picture.

In fact, the Pickens Plan is driven by economics. I won’t fall in line with the increasing group of people who say that such a motivation is wrong, evil or anything else. Economics really works well, as long as all the costs are accounted for. But recenty, for example, Pickens announced that he was delaying plans for implementation of wind, because the price of natural gas has fallen so much. If the markets were correctly pricing gas, oil, and coal (to include the cost of carbon) many argue that renewables like wind would be economically viable from the start.

Pickens’ plan would significantly reduce our need for coal and oil, by generating clean electricity from wind and solar (and other sources), and our need for oil by substituting natural gas. But how clean is natural gas? Well, it’s cleaner if you’re talking about what we have historically classified as pollutants. But according to one study, a gas/electric hybrid Civic produced lower greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions than it’s CNG counterpart.

But isn’t electric the way to go for cars? If we truly do upgrade to a smart electricity grid and are able to generate a lot of wind, solar and geothermal electricity, then we’ll have plenty. Indeed, one of the touted benefits of plug-in electric cars is that they can work with the grid as a buffer for variable wind and sunlight conditions.

Pickens does make a valid point, however: there is no electric technology on the horizon that is sufficiently powerful to power our trucking and shipping industries. They run on diesel fuel. CNG engines, as many metropolitan areas use already for buses are suitably powerful for these applications, and because the fueling locations are more predictable, a much smaller infrastructure is needed to support this usage. I’m not sure about airplanes.

Still, Pickens discounts the value of electric cars in favor of CNG. I can only reconcile this by believing 1) he doesn’t really believe that climate change is real, and 2) CNG comes from companies he’s already invested in and owns; electricity (even if he makes a lot) is an inherently decentralized resource since there are so many ways to make it. Am I cynical?

So I am a little ambivalent about Pickens’ notion that we should all jump on his plan, and it sounds like the Sierra Club is ambivalent about Pickens, too.

I have railed against self-defeating environmentalists in the past — endless and divisive fighting about which variant of one good idea tends to cause the failure of all. Each of these plans has a lot of overlap and there are parts that pretty much everyone agrees upon. So to be clear, I think we should move forward.

But another danger, just as insidious, would be to say “just do all of the plans”, or even to pick ideas from each a la carte. The idea behind each of these plans is that there is a single, urgent, focused, unified, national (and global) effort that sets us on a clear course in the right direction. At some level, we need to pick one and get everyone on board with it.

This is going to be hard, because it’s in the details where there are differences. At this point, I have to say that Pickens’ Plan has less to offer than the others, and that is mainly because the objective of energy independence must fundamentally be a result of addressing climate change, not the other way around.

3 Comments

  1. Yes, Pickens plan is incomplete, which is why he calls it only a “bridge” to energy independence. He does not claim that his plan will deliver energy independence. It will buy time until future technologies are developed.

    One of those future technologies is electric cars. You talk as though the technology is fully developed. It is not. There are many red flags being raised, a reminder of red flags that were ignored years ago when hydrogen was the promise of the future.

    Cost, performance, range, over-night charging – are all problems that consumers will not like.

    CNG cars are proven technology that every manufacturer could mass produce now. But they are not going to do that if the CNG is not available, or the price of gasoline drops back to $1.05 per gallon.

    Energy Independence is within our reach. Let’s not forget why we are reaching for it.
    http://www.AmericanEnergyIndependence.com

    Comment by Ron Bengtson — November 26, 2008 @ 7:02 pm

  2. Ron —

    Thank you for your comment and thoughtful criticism. I appreciate it.

    I took a look at AmericanEnergyIndependence.com. I certainly agree that energy independence is an important goal, if not the most important, for our country now, for many, many reasons. And, as I have looked at the Pickens Plan, it is more clear that the plan is indeed focused on achieving energy independence.

    A single focus on energy independence, without recognizing other intrinsically related issues (water, food, climate, population, and several others) will tend to result in an outcome that may solve one problem but exacerbate the others. We have a long history of failing to address the root problem in our political and economic policies (witness the failures of various housing subsidies for examples).

    Failing to address climate change, for one, is as likely to put the US in a vulnerable strategic position in the world as is failing to address our oil dependence. Currently our failure to neither lead nor even to cooperate in global efforts to address climate change have put the US at odds with much of the rest of the world. As the effects of climate change, population growth and others are felt around the globe, our failure to lead would isolate us even more than it already has.

    Yes, the Pickens Plan indirectly accomplishes many of the same climate change benefits as other plans, but it is, in several ways, in conflict with policies that would also address climate change, and some of the other major issues noted earlier.

    For example, even though natural gas has a reputation for being clean, for a given unit of power, CNG still releases 75% as much CO2 as gasoline (source: http://www.wou.edu/las/physci/GS361/Energy_From_Fossil_Fuels.htm). Yes, this is a big improvement, but, for example, not as much as I get from the Prius I drive and which is very much in production today, which results in 50% as much CO2 as a standard car, simply because of efficiency. Sure, we could have CNG/Electric hybrids, but any fossil fuel, when burnt, is going to release CO2.

    To be clear, I understand the current limitations of electric cars; I own one (a Prius) and see that while a significant step forward, it is only a step. Other cars are in development that take some big next steps.

    While CNG vehicles are certainly feasible to mass-produce, I am not sure “now” is any more realistic for gas than electric. One issue with CNG is that the distribution network is not in place. And obviously, some non-trivial retooling is needed by the car makers; as far as I know only Honda has their Civic GX, which has some limitations of its own.

    I think it’s a mistake to compare electric cars with hydrogen. Electric motors are, for one, a drive system, not an energy storage system (like a battery, or for that matter like gasoline or CNG). Hydrogen powered cars in prototype has used an electric drive system. Hydrogen is a much more distant technology, and always has been compared to CNG or electric; anyone who was lining up behind hydrogen in the past didn’t get the whole picture.

    I am not arguing that either infrastructure nor production of CNG vehicles is unfeasible, just that it’s not really quite as far along as I think we might believe. Further, I think plugin gasoline-electric hybrids (including new Prius, Chevy Volt, others) are well along and strongly supported by manufacturers, if only because hybrid designs overcome many significant transition issues.

    Back to energy independence, let’s also look at how much gas we actually have. Actual current know reserves are not that large. Mostly, we have what is referred to as unconventional gas, and if you look at that, we also have a great deal of unconventional oil. The reason they are unconventional is that they require a great deal more effort to extract than their conventional counterparts. Yes, we have a lot (of both, actually), and probably gas is the better alternative.

    But does gas really advance energy independence? Yes, it probably does. Is it the best way? I don’t think so. The question I would have is whether a significant effort to transform our passenger fleet to CNG is the best use of our resources — I don’t think so. I do think CNG should be a bridge fuel alternative to coal, diesel and gasoline for larger vehicles.

    Comment by Tom Harrison — November 29, 2008 @ 5:24 pm

  3. Tom, I’ve heard T. Boone talking recently (on NPR maybe), that CNG should be used to fuel trucks since they are not likely to be powered by electricity in the foreseeable future. I see the Pickens Plan as a piece-part of an overall strategy, as an attempt to get the nation focused on eliminating our dependence on foreign oil, and as a business opportunity for Pickens (which, like you, I felt was okay: we need more business folks ready to attack the problem, whatever their motivations).

    Comment by Chris — November 30, 2008 @ 7:39 am

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