The Phone Call
based on a true story

Major cable network: What do you think of T. Boone Pickens’ latest energy plan?

Me: Half of it is great — the big push on wind power. Heck, even the Bush administration says wind power could be 20 percent of U.S. electricity. But the notion that we would use the wind power to free up natural gas in order to fuel a transition to natural gas vehicles makes no sense. Why would we go to the trouble of switching our vehicle fleet from running on one expensive fossil fuel to another expensive fossil fuel? Any freed up natural gas should be used to displace coal …

Major cable network: I was hoping you liked the whole plan. That way we could use you on the show … You don’t have any ideas of who might like the whole thing?

Me [Long pause, crickets chirp, the wind sighs, sea levels rise a few meters]: No. The people who will like the renewables part probably won’t be thrilled about the fossil fuel part, and vice versa.

Major cable network: Thanks. I’m sure we will find some reason to use you soon.

I am thinking about working that into a screenplay about a mild-mannered blogger for a great metropolitan progressive think tank who sacrifices his chance to be on television because he refuses to endorse an inane idea. I was looking at Matt Damon to play me, especially now that he has put on a little weight.

Seriously, though, it’s great that gazillionaire TBP is talking up peak oil and joining the wind power bandwagon. And it’s great he plans to spend tens of millions of dollars pushing this idea and delivering the mesage that $15 billion for the wind production tax credit is peanuts compared to the $700 billion this country is going to spend on foreign oil this year.

But if you want to displace oil, the obvious thing to do is use of the wind power to charge plug-in hybrids, multiple models of which will be introduced into the U.S. car market in two years. Indeed, with electric utilities controlling the charging of the plug-ins, they can make optimum use of variable wind power, which is mostly available at night. That would be a win-win-win.

The Pickens Plan, however, is based on the utterly impractical idea that “Harnessing the power of wind to generate electricity will give us the flexibility to shift natural gas away from electricity generation and put it to use as a transportation fuel.”

Uh, never gonna happen, T. Boone. Never. The most obvious reason is the gross inefficiency of the entire plan.

Right now, “We currently use natural gas to produce 22 percent of our electricity.” Most of that electricity comes from gas burned in combined cycle gas turbines at an overall efficiency of up to 60 percent. Why in the world would the federal government — or anyone else — spend billions and billions of dollars on natural gas fueling stations and natural gas vehicles in order to burn the gas with an efficiency of 15 percent to 20 percent? Natural gas is simply too useful and expensive to squander in such a fashion.

And then there’s global warming.

It now seems clear this country will have a major effort to reduce greenhouse-gas emissions and a price for carbon dioxide within a few years. That means all federal and private sector energy-related investments will increasingly be driven by the need to achieve reductions in carbon dioxide emissions at the lowest price.

Running cars on natural gas does not significantly reduce GHG emissions (especially if there is even the tiniest leak in the whole gas delivery process). Running a car on electricity from the U.S. electric grid does reduce GHG emissions. And running a car on electricity from combined cycle gas turbines would have a far lower GHG emissions than running the car directly on natural gas — internal combustion engines are simply too damn inefficient. Of course, running a car on the wind power would eliminate vehicle admissions completely. Or using the wind power to displace coal plants would eliminate the emissions from those plants entirely.

So again, neither the federal government nor anyone else is going to spend billions and billions of dollars on natural gas fueling stations and natural gas vehicles.

A 2002 analysis ($ub. req’d) of why natural gas vehicles (NGVs) didn’t catch on was published in Energy Policy. The study concluded that the environmental benefits of NGVs were oversold, as were the early cost estimates for both the vehicles and the refueling stations: “Early promoters often believe that ‘prices just have to drop’ and cited what turned out to be unachievable price levels.” The study concluded, “Exaggerated claims have damaged the credibility of alternate transportation fuels, and have retarded acceptance, especially by large commercial purchasers.”

So a large-scale switch to NGVs by consumers is not going to happen no matter what T. Boone does. But he could help accelerate wind power into the marketplace, and for that alone, he deserves some kudos.

This post was created for ClimateProgress.org, a project of the Center for American Progress Action Fund.