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Pickens Plan -- switch cars to NG, electricity to wind


Last weekend I attended a small gathering in the Grand Tetons where Boone Pickens came to promote his new energy plan. The billionaire oilman is spending $56M of his own money per year on ads for this plan, and you will see them if you watch ads. Otherwise they are at his Pickens Plan web site.

Pickens' thesis is that the most ruinous thing in energy is the 700 billion dollars per year the USA spends importing oil, a number destined to go up to a trillion. He thinks the price will continue to rise, simply because demand now exceeds supply, and that supply can't be radically increased -- ie. he believes in the Peak Oil thesis. He doesn't seem to mind burning the fuel so much as importing it, which is giving trillions to other nations at U.S. expense. He is happy to support any domestic oil production, such as offshore, as good because it reduces the import numbers, but doesn't think these are long term solutions.

His main goal is to get cars off of oil and onto domestic energy. He thinks the best way to do that is with LNG (liquid natural gas) or compressed natural gass cars. He says they have been far cheaper than gasoline for some time -- half the cost -- but that this was not enough to make people care enough to switch. Any new fuel has a chicken and egg problem when it comes to fueling infrastructure, something that Robocars solve, by the way.

To do that, he needs to take natural gas from the power grid. NG produces 20% of U.S. electricity. So he is promoting wind and solar. The wind in a high-wind corridor that runs up the center of the country, the solar in the sun-belt (the southwest and California.)

It's an interesting plan, and he points out that whatever flaws you may find in it, at least it is a plan, something that's been lacking for some time.

That said, some notes:

  • Getting power from the wind belt is not easy. In spite of what you may think, there is no national power grid, and certainly no infrastructure to power the coasts from the middle. This would have to be built, and would be very expensive. Pickens admits this. New technology of high voltage DC transmission could help.
  • I'm not sure that adding wind power would free up NG for cars. I think we would just use more electricity if you increase the supply. That's what we do.
  • Indeed, from a pollution standpoint, we would be far better to shut down coal plants when the wind/solar comes online, but we won't, because it's cheap. Only moving cars to NG (or electric or other domestic energy source) reduces oil imports.
  • Pickens is buying a pretty old-school marketing campaign with his spare millions. We all thought he could have done it for far less with clever use of the internet and a more modest TV budget.
  • The 700 million isn't all bad, of course. The largest source of imported oil is Canada. Saudis are #2 and Mexico is #3. Venezuela is #4, though it recently switched from from a friendly ally to an unfriendly.

Still, it's good that Pickens will get people talking about this. NG for cars is already a reasonably popular fleet fuel. New extraction technologies have opened up a lot of new sources of NG of late. Of course, burning NG still emits CO2, though not much else, once refined to more pure methane, it's the cleanest fossil fuel.


"It’s an interesting plan, and he points out that whatever flaws you may find in it, at least it is a plan, something that’s been lacking for some time."

Sure, nobody has proposed an energy plan before, nor one with a goal of "energy independence" from non-US sources.

Too bad those millions for silly ads aren't going to fund or the like.

What Pickens was referring to was not that nobody else has proposed plans, but that no plan has ever been adopted, by the government or energy industries. Of course many others have proposed plans. But Pickens is saying to those who find fault with his plan, "what's your plan?" and I sense he means, how are you going to get it adopted.

As you know in this blog I've proposed my own plan, that we do all we can to develop robocar technology to make electric and other efficient cars highly desirable by the public.

Key to any plan is not dreaming it up. It's finding a way to make it what the public wants to do, not should do. Only a modest fraction of the public will go green because it's the right thing to do. Indeed, even laws are limited in how much power they can exert. The only thing that is sure to work is something that's cheaper and better. (Just cheaper or just better may not be enough, unless it's much cheaper or much better.)

You can tweak that with laws, but you can't go crazy. And you have to be much better because people will compensate. When gasoline engines got more efficient, the fleet MPG averages stayed the same as people bought heavier cars instead of more efficient cars of the same weight. It's a tough problem.

Pickens' plan isn't going to be adopted either.

I'm a huge fan of just about everything you say about transportation, but incremental efficiency improvements are good, even if they don't result in immediate decreases in energy consumption -- increased safety (and indeed bigger and more comfortable vehicles) are nothing to sneeze at.

However, I agree that big improvements are needed and that robocars are probably the most underappreciated potential big improvement (my intention has long been to never own a car I have to drive). So I wish the likes of Pickens would spend money on something (like prizes) to spur big improvements rather than on ads promoting hopeless plans.

Yes, I don't know if Pickens will succeed. He does have a lot more money to put into it than most of us. I was just reporting what he told me.

A movement to more wind farms is already underway, with a fair bit happening in Texas, which is what got him started. I don't see much bad to come of his efforts to get more wind power built, he may attain that, mostly because it's profitable to do as fossil fuel prices go up. Whether that would cause people to switch to natural gas for cars is much harder to figure out.

One thing I hadn't realized was that the same amount of NG to power a car costs half the price of gasoline. With the public so up in arms over the doubling of the price of gasoline in the last few years, you think that would get attention. He told me he's been trying to get people interested in NG cars for many years but they always say that being half the price isn't good enough. At 75 cents vs. $1.50 it was not. At $2.50 vs. $5 (if it stays that way) per gallon-equivalent, it might do a bit better.

Problem is that to get this saving you have to accept:

  • A much larger fuel tank in your car, taking away trunk space, to get the range
  • Having to hunt around for CNG fueling stations if not on your standard route, and perhaps not finding them
  • The cost of conversion of your vehicle (or ideally a CNG designed engine.)

Pickens plans to install a device you can get for the home which will compress your household natural gas into your car, so you can refuel at home each night. That sort of thing certainly would help with a commute car or car that never goes more than 100 miles from the house. But it's expensive, and would eat up the savings, at least at today's prices.

I think Pickens main objective is to secure billions for his wind project as nowhere have I seen him talk about some of the primary obstacles on both the transport & energy side of the equation.
On the energy side you got the Power interest who own and operate the current NG power infrastructure, at considerable profit, who aren't about to sit idly by and let some upstart usurp their feedstock. Best case you got 2 interest competing for the same resources and price of NG skyrockets. There are considerable barriers on the transport side as well (such as a workable adoption model) but you gotta get past the obstacles on the energy side first.

Wave power as it's being considered now is a good idea with one serious flaw: you have to build in the ocean, for most ideas being considered now.

For renewables, the real cost is maintance and cost of replacement -- in the ocean, those costs would be high because maintenance would be difficult and machines would wear out rapidly. Also, transmission can be difficult.

But there is one system (I don't know the name of it) that's an old idea. Instead of buidling in the ocean, build on land, and stick one or more pipes into the ocean that rises at a right angle under the power plant. As waves come in, the turn a turbine in the pipe, both as water rises into the pipe and as it falls back into the sea.

This system is relatively simple and easy to maintain, compared to systems being built in the ocean. Of course, the ocean will still erode the system.

Transmission is also relatively uncomplicated.

It might be possible to make power plants relatively small. . . which brings us to another issue. Isn't alternative energy conducive to independence from the electricity monopoly? Is it true that the government regulations that assume that there's one company to hold accountable for the maintenance of the grid -- regulations that California ditched to the state's regret -- consist of a barrier to adoption of energy schemes that permit a lower barrier to entry in the market?

The system I describe could be quite small -- but if it were that small, what power monopoly would buy into it?

Here is my third video posted on you tube – It’s about wind energy.
Note that it identifies a flaw in the Pickens Plan.

Are boring. Just write it out, I can read that 10x faster.

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