Monday, August 18, 2008

T. Boone Pickens and the Politics of Wind

pickens_turibine_080515_mn The reason to pay attention to T. Boone Pickens and his plan to replace natural gas with wind energy so as to divert the natural gas to automobiles is two-fold: he’s really rich and has the funds to build a constituency for his ideas; and he aims to cut through a perceived government blockage on energy policy by insisting on an approach – his own - that can be implemented now and has – he says - many positive qualities. He means to short-circuit the larger arguments around energy, cut through competing policy proposals, and get the American people behind a plan that is concrete and reasoned – and his.

Put that way, Pickens might seem profoundly undemocratic, depending as he does on droit de seigneur to push to the head of the line while opposition crumbles due to the logic and fineness of his ideas. He still has to get people to buy in to his plan – without actually buying them off, which would be problematic - and government has to cede its role in policy formation to him. Many big ideas by well-meaning rich folk founder on these points – all the king’s men couldn’t put Ross Perot back together once his public image began to curdle. Commercial buys (and charts) can carry you only so far.

But should T. Boone Pickens and his plan be considered differently than, say, Al Gore and his plan? Before we offer our own answer, consider: both men use much the same apocalyptic-prophetic rhetoric in insisting on dire consequences if their warnings are not heeded. Both use media to put across their message – Gore through a slide show and movie and Pickens through TV ads and a web site. Both offer public policy prescriptions, though Pickens’ are considerably more detailed.

However, we would say there is a signal difference and, in our view, it favors Gore. Let’s leave aside that Gore opened the door that Pickens has walked through, because Gore opened that door intentionally. Anyone can, and many have, responded to Gore’s invitation to weigh in on global warming solutions. The difference really lie in the two men’s orientation.

Gore is a public servant who has continued in that role beyond holding office. We may assume he maintains many contacts in government, but publicly, he puts his ideas into the public sphere to be approached, attacked, morphed, adopted, rejected – whatever. That’s how public policy forms and how a consensus develops around policy. While he remains an effective advocate for his ideas – and the Nobel Prize conferred tremendous credibility upon his efforts – he doesn’t control them.

Pickens is a businessman. We must start with the premise that he is utterly sincere in what he wants to do – and yes, we’ve read some of the same things you may have that would upset that premise – and that he wants to make money from his efforts. Like, say, Bill Gates, who pours money and time into many worthy efforts while making sure the digital world he can influence thinks the apple is only a fruit that keeps the doctor away, Pickens inclines to worthy solutions that can materially reward him. Now, Pickens can be both a saint and a businessman – that isn’t the point – it is that he has constructed a plan that bypasses public debate and is presented as a fait accompli avant le lettre. Questions of motivation naturally rise to the fore and must be considered even if ultimately dismissed.

We can look at plans informed by Gore’s ideas - or we can look at Pickens’ plan. We can approve or disapprove it but there it is. And that’s all there is.

All this preamble is not to preclude delving into Pickens’ proposal – which we intend to do over a few posts – or to say Pickens has no right to do what he is doing – he most certainly does – but only to balance the worthy aspects of his proposal with the preemption of policy formation it represents.

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You may well be thinking – hey, wait a second, this isn’t about using atoms for the general good. But let’s be clear, our own motivations being reasonably suspect, we don’t intend to crush Pickens and his plan under our nuclear heel.

We all recognize, I think, that any sensible energy policy has to include a mix of energy generators – practically, politically, and industrially - and wind has enough, er, wind behind it to be a part of that mix. Pickens or no Pickens, wind energy remains a cousin of nuclear energy in the non-emissions sweepstakes, and even if Pickens cannot ultimately implement his plan, its elements may well enter the broader energy discussion. So it deserves a hearing. After all, you drop in on your cousins occasionally, don’t you?

Picture of himself, T. Boone Pickens. Since there are no links, we guess this qualifies as an original piece – but please, explore the Pickens web site and see what you think.

7 comments:

Bill said...

"However, we would say there is a signal difference and, in our view, it favors Gore."

Gore doesn't really have a plan, just a goal of replacing fossil-fuel powered electricity within ten years. Which strikes me as wildly unrealistic, to be charitable; we're currently using about 760 GW of capacity and 2,900 TW·hr/yr = 330 GW·yr/yr of power from fossil fuels (2006 figures from EIA).

donb said...

What "bill" said above is the nut of the problem. While Gore may have a large, overall view of the energy problem, taking such a big bite can leave one unable to chew. The much more limited goals of the Pickens plan are tractable and verifiable, assuming we have enough data about the magnitude and distribution of winds across the midsection of our country. The technology is in hand. Good estimates of costs can be made.

I for one would like to see the detailed analysis that shows that the "system" would operate as intended.

Personally, I would have nuclear included in the mix, especially if the analysis showed a significant probability of low wind resouces across the system at times of high demand, since backing up wind generation with natural gas powered generation defeats the intent of the Pickens initiative.

Rod Adams said...

Mark:

You wrote:

Gore is a public servant who has continued in that role beyond holding office. We may assume he maintains many contacts in government, but publicly, he puts his ideas into the public sphere to be approached, attacked, morphed, adopted, rejected – whatever.

In fact, Gore is also a businessman - he is a full partner in one of the largest venture capital firms in the country that specializes in alternative energy investments - Kleiner Perkins.

Shifting focus - Pickens has stated repeatedly that he includes nuclear power as part of his plan - at least when he is being interviewed or when testifying in front of Congress. Here is a quote from an August 13 interview in the Wall Street Journal:

"I'm for drilling every place. And I'm for nuclear, and I'm for ethanol, because it means another one million barrels we don't have to import. I'm for anything American. I'm opposed to only one thing: foreign oil. Heck yes, drill. There is nothing wrong with drilling. We haven't had an oil spill in 20 years. If you don't like the appearance of rigs don't look."

Anonymous said...

Can I buy carbon credits from myself, like Al Gore does?

Anonymous said...

I watched the Picken's video.

He thinks that wind can replace natural gas for electricity generation.

Say "dispatchable," class.

Much of our natural gas used for electricity goes to peaking. Wind can't do that.

All of the rest of our natural gas goes to base load. Wind can't do that.

Pickens has risen to the level where no one who works with him feeds him accurate information. It's completely unrealistic to suggest that we could actually replace all of our natural gas consumption for electricity with wind in 2 years (the claim) so this natural gas could be used to power cars and reduce oil imports.

If Pickens is going to build some windmills, then he should build some very expensive storage too so his windmills can dispatch electricity. Of course, then he would really loose a lot of money.

Since Pickens is really good at making money, I'm pretty sure that he will never, ever provide dispatchable electricity from his wind turbines.

Anonymous said...

I prefer not to open an account, so I'll probably be listed as "anonymous," but I'm signing at the bottom, so I can be distinguished from other anonyms.

Doesn't anyone (besides me) find it infuriating that Pickens, of all people, is trying to guide any sort of energy innovation? Leaving aside the merits (or lack) of his proposal, isn't this the same guy who, 20-some years ago, spearheaded the kind of shareholder revolts that created the current climate of aiming all of a business's efforts at quarterly earnings statements, and in effect destroyed corporate-based research and development?

--E. Michael Blake

Soylent said...

"Much of our natural gas used for electricity goes to peaking. Wind can't do that."

You can still save a little bit of natural gas.

On-peak you can throttle back gas-fired generation if the wind happens to be blowing at the time. But what's in it for the people operating the gas turbines? The gas turbines will not run as efficiently, so the gas savings will not be as large as they might appear at first. Realistically the wind farm people have to pay the gas turbine people to forgo generating electricity or get their own gas turbines to make their electricity dispatchable.

Off-peak you end up with intermittent power and no gas-fired generation to balance with(if you're intending to save natural gas). Either you find someone who's willing to accept intermittent power at significantly discounted rates(the people who electrolyse NaCl or KCl to produce chlorine gas, hydrogen gas and lye might be interested), build costly storage or rely on feed in tariffs to reward you for electricity that can't be used.