Dave Spicer: Pickens Picks a New Horse - the Wrong One

Our current fossil fuel-based energy economy is broken and no amount of drilling will have an appreciable long-lasting impact on oil prices. The world’s economies are sliding inexorably down the slope of the global Peak Oil curve that was predicted by a Shell Oil geologist back in the 1950’s.

What is an energy economy? It’s a network of energy sources, distribution, and utilization that today is dominated by oil wells and coal mines; oil pipelines and tankers; and cars and trucks respectively. We need a replacement energy economy that will sever our dependence on unstable governments who care only for our money to fund terrorists bent on our destruction. We need a replacement that will strengthen our economies and not weaken them, and lastly, we need a replacement that will clean our fouled environment.

It’s refreshing, then, that a tycoon like T. Boone Pickens is backing a replacement for the commodity which made him a billionaire, oil. It seems Mr. Pickens invested heavily in natural gas in the late nineties and just last year invested heavily in wind farms. His solution—not surprisingly based on wind and natural gas—is to develop massive wind farms to generate enough electricity to offset the electricity we currently generate from natural gas—about 20% of our total electrical generation capability—and utilize the saved fuel to power natural gas-driven vehicles.

There are many candidate architectures for replacing our current fossil fuel economy and when you enumerate all the possible combinations of energy sources, distribution, and utilization, they number about one-hundred, most of which don’t work. Mr. Pickens’ proposal is one of these, and unfortunately, it’s one that doesn’t work for a variety of reasons:

Wind turbines generate electricity, but wind, by its very nature, is unpredictable, which makes the electricity generated unpredictable. Wind energy is currently being used successfully by farmers and even small communities, but in all cases, these applications rely on the existing electric grid during times of insufficient wind. But Mr. Pickens proposal is to use wind for utility grid generation, for which there is no backup. Inconsistency by itself is not a deal-breaker. As long as you have the ability to store the energy generated you can generate enough excess energy such that the average output is sufficient to power the loads from storage. Storing electricity requires batteries, and while there have been important breakthroughs in battery technology to power electric vehicles with capacities of 40-50 kilowatt hours, storing enough electricity to power the grid would require batteries millions of times larger, a technology we do not possess.

Mr. Pickens has been an advocate of natural gas fueled vehicles for some time. Unfortunately, natural gas vehicles are still powered by internal combustion engines that are only ten-percent efficient, regardless of the fuel they’re burning. In 2006 we imported 20% of our natural gas. Also in 2006 we consumed 21 Trillion Cubic Feet and had reserves of 193 Trillion Cubic Feet and our consumption has been increasing by 6.5% per year since 2006 . This means that if we could somehow find a way to eliminate natural gas imports completely, we would have enough reserves to last only 9 years, after which we would be importing all of a commodity which the Pickens Plan would have committed us to. Any attempt to move a significant amount of our transportation to a natural gas platform will result in massive importation of a commodity that we import too much of already. In effect, we would be shifting our dependence on unstable oil producers to unstable natural gas producers, which in many cases are one and the same. And being carbon-based, burning natural gas in our vehicles would do little to mitigate the carbon dioxide generated.

Lastly, the economics behind Mr. Pickens proposal, while obviously beneficial to his companies, do not make sense for our country. It will take many billions of dollars to create enough wind farms to offset our electric generation from natural gas and convert our cars to run on natural gas. How will we pay for this investment? Nothing in his architecture provides any savings since we would just be shifting our expenses from oil to natural gas. In addition, there would be infrastructure expenses in getting enough natural gas to our current gas stations, not to mention funding the natural gas refueling devices that would be needed at thousands of stations.

Fortunately, of the hundred possible energy economy architectures there is at least one that does make sense, and that is moving to a Carbonless Electric Economy, one that leverages our new battery technology for electric vehicles, our existing electric grid infrastructure, and the development of solar thermal electricity generation in our desert southwest that would be completely funded by the 90% efficiency of electric vehicles when compared to their 10% efficient internal combustion counterparts.

Our politicians, especially the two running for the highest office, like to tell us that the solution is “do them all” and quickly rattle off biofuels, solar, geothermal, wind, etc. Of course they’re in the business of telling people what they want to hear, not what they need to hear. The danger is that any attempt to do all of these will result in none. We have neither the time nor money to attempt multiple incompatible paths, which means we need to do the careful analysis it takes to pick the right one.

Mr. Pickens has a new horse in this race, unfortunately he’s riding the wrong one. He’s competing with the Carbonless Electric Economy that will: provide carbonless electricity generation with no fuel costs, utilize our existing electric grid distribution infrastructure and be self-funding given the efficiency of electric vehicles.

Mr. Spicer is the author of Deadly Freedom, a novel based on the real science of clean, abundant energy provided by an electric economy.

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