Pickens' energy plan isn't powered by details

SEATTLE, WASHINGTON - T. Boone Pickens describes himself as an oil-and-gas man, but what he has really been adept at producing over the years are attention and ruckus, with him at the center of both.

Back in his corporate raiding days in the 1980s, his takeover bids for Gulf, Phillips and Unocal generated so much attention and ruckus that just the suggestion that Pickens might take a run at The Boeing Co. was enough to scare the Washington Legislature into special session to enact a bill to thwart such hostile threats.

Pickens is back in the headlines, on television – and in a forum he didn't have 20 years ago, the Internet – to promote an energy plan called, surprisingly enough, the Pickens Plan. The decisive and bold plan (his characterization), he says, is a national call to action at a time of crisis to break the reliance on foreign oil and provide "cleaner, cheaper and domestic energy resources."

The details and components of the Pickens Plan?

More wind power to generate electricity. And natural gas as a motor fuel.

That's it.

That's it?

Cue your favorite sound effect at this point – chirping crickets or nervous throat-clearing and paper rustling. At some point, the uncomfortable quiet will have to be broken by someone pointing out a few, shall we say, nuances and complications to such a straightforward proposal.

First, it's not as though neither idea occurred to anyone before Pickens enlightened us. The taxi you ride from Sea-Tac to downtown is likely powered by natural gas. Truck manufacturer Paccar plans to build liquefied- natural-gas heavy-duty trucks at its Kenworth Renton plant next year.

Extensive wind farms with hundreds of turbines are already generating electricity in Eastern Washington and Oregon. More are coming.

Second, there's the little matter of getting the energy to its user. Pickens envisions planting a swath of the Midwest and Great Plains, from North Dakota to Texas, with wind turbines (to illustrate why there, the Pickens Plan Web site uses a map from Seattle-based 3Tier, which assesses wind, solar and hydro potential). But that's not where the people are. Getting the electricity to them will cost hundreds of billions on top of the $1 trillion bill for the wind farms (those estimates are from the Pickens Plan, which maintains that it's a bargain compared with the tab for foreign oil).

The attraction of gasoline as a motor fuel is that the distribution system, built over decades, is already in place. Natural gas works decently for motor vehicles for fleets that operate from a central dispatching and refueling center. Maybe one day we'll have car refueling ports in our home, connected to the same lines that supply our furnaces and water heaters. But those will cost someone money, as will refueling stations, should we want to venture out a ways.

Leaving aside those issues (and a trillion bucks is a lot to set aside), we come to the small matter of whether we'll have enough wind or natural gas to do what will be asked of them.

For natural gas, the issue is supply. Some in the energy industry, such as Puget Sound Energy Chief Executive Steve Reynolds, have been warning that natural gas supplies just for the uses we've got now – home water and space heating, industry, electricity production and a small bit of transportation - are thin enough as they are. "On a world basis there is plenty of natural gas available for an extended period of time," he says. "Whether there is in North America is another question."

True, there's a lot of gas in Alaska (provided it can get to the Lower 48, and there's that pesky issue of expensive infrastructure again) and western Canada. But Reynolds says those supplies will at best offset the decline in production from current U.S. reserves.

The most promising relief from tighter supplies and volatile prices, he says, are imports of liquefied natural gas. Provided, of course, you can build LNG terminals, no easy feat, as recent bruising battles in Oregon have suggested.

For wind, the issue is availability. For an illustration of the problem, drive up to Puget's new visitor center at its Wild Horse wind farm 16 miles east of Ellensburg.

At midmorning on a recent bright summer day, the center offered a sweeping view of the installation's 127 turbines – only a handful of which were turning, none at sufficient speeds to generate electricity (the turbines work at wind speeds of 9 to 55 miles per hour, Puget says).

Later in the day, the utility reports, the wind picks up considerably and the electricity flows. That's great, if that's the time of day you happen to want power. If you'd like it at other hours, you're going to need something else.

In the Northwest, that something else is the hydro system. But it's also natural gas, the very fuel the Pickens Plan wants to divert from electricity generation to motor vehicles.

"You run the wind when you can, just like we run the hydro when we can because the incremental cost is very low," Reynolds says. "But then you have to be concerned about the reliability of the system, and that you're protected and that you can meet loads when you lose your lower-cost and volatile resource."

That's why Puget is investing in both wind and natural gas. Taking natural gas out of the electricity business "would be nice if there were alternatives," Reynolds says, but for now it's the best option.

Is there a good long-term alternative? "We're all looking for it," Reynolds says. "That's why we've got the solar panels" now being installed at Wild Horse.

At least the Northwest has the hydro option. If other parts of the country are gong to rely more heavily on wind, what are they going to "firm up" that power with, if not natural gas? Some out-of-favor fuel such as coal or nuclear?

The most workable and affordable energy plan is one that throws in pieces of everything, from increased oil and gas exploration and production to increased conservation and efficiency in heating and transportation to multiple fuels and power sources for vehicles and electricity generation, old and new (wind, solar, tidal, geothermal, biofuels, even new coal technologies and a nuke or two).

Such an approach doesn't make for flashy advertising campaigns or snappy slogans. It will have to do, though, until the technology arrives to convert Pickens' ability to generate near inexhaustible amounts of attention, hype and publicity into a similarly inexhaustible resource for generating electricity and motor-vehicle fuel.


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