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.