Tilting Toward Windmills

Texas legend T. Boone Pickens is a man with a mission: to reduce American dependence on fossil fuels. That the goal is worthwhile is undeniable. Whether his plan is right is another matter.

What is indisputable are the chilling facts T. Boone relates in his online videos:

In 1970, the United States imported 24 percent of its oil.

In 1990, that had grown to 42 percent.

It is now 70 percent, costing us (according to Pickens) $700 billion a year.

To solve this, Pickens advances the use of natural gas and wind power. Pickens claims 22 percent of current power could be replaced by wind-generated power. His proposal would transform the American Midwest, the breadbasket of the world, requiring windmills to be erected from Galveston to Fargo at a cost of at least $1.2 trillion (Boone’s estimate). He also wants to see automobiles fitted with Compressed Natural Gas (CNG) tanks, which he claims would cut our use of gasoline by $300 billion within 10 years.

The Pickens Plan was feted by Carl Pope of the Sierra Club on The Huffington Post. “To put it plainly, T. Boone Pickens is out to save America,” he wrote.

If one can judge a man by his friends and supporters, this would have us worried.

One can see why Pope likes the Pickens plan. Pickens diminishes the use of nuclear power out-of-hand. But Pope would find more to like. “He dismisses the current calls for opening up the coast to drilling, saying that the government’s official estimates of oil and gas reserves are wildly inflated – ‘the geology just isn’t there,’” Pope pontificated. He is sadly correct that Pickens is “certainly likely to draw an audience that a green wind-power advocate from the Sierra Club could never command.”

Although Pickens is not a wide-eyed environmentalist, his proposals give rise to significant problems and questions:

  1. The plan to redesign automobiles with natural gas tanks would apply only to new vehicles. Older vehicles would have to be converted. Unless the entire country buys new vehicles at once, or conversion is streamlined for cost and speed, its effect on imported oil demand would only be felt long-term.

  3. At present, there is no CNG distribution system, much less a viable nationwide chain.

  5. Because CNG is diffuse rather than concentrated, it requires additional storage, often in additional storage tanks loaded in the trunk.

  7. Most alarming is the volatility of CNG. A 2002 government study found, “Events that can result in a release and subsequent ignition of large quantities of a flammable fuel/air mixture are the event of concern for the CNG fuel system… Inadvertent opening of valves or loosening of fittings containing high-pressure natural gas can result not only in the creation of a fire hazard, but also in the high-velocity ejection of metal parts or fragments that can be lethal.”

  9. The same report found a CNG system’s “additional complexity and equipment will result in a less reliable (durable) vehicle with a lower availability than that of a conventional heavy vehicle.”

Pickens’ claims about the transformative effect of wind power also puzzle. In May, the U.S. Department of Energy released a report stating wind could provide 20 percent of national power needs by the year 2030. However, such an increase would offset only 11 percent of natural gas use, not 22 percent as Pickens claims. (See the full Wind Energy Report.) Wind turbines only generate power during gusts, raising the question of what happens when the wind is not blowing. The windmills’ life is one-quarter that of nuclear facilities, assuring the massive expenditure of erecting the system will be repeated on a regular basis.

Wind power could have another troubling impact on our national security. The UK Ministry of Defense discovered windmill turbines block radar detection of airplanes – not a small concern in any massive reconstruction of “flyover country,” especially in the midst of a terror war against an enemy whose preferred method of attack is plane hijackings.

The greatest void in Pickens’ plan is simply ignoring practical steps that can be taken to halt our dependence on foreign oil. No workable plan ignores all pieces of the puzzle. Drilling for known oil reserves and reviving nuclear power are necessary components. Exploring domestic oil reserves both lowers the price of the commodity and makes us less dependent on foreign oil, often manipulated by hostile regimes.

Significantly, using domestic oil requires no change in the oil system: no development of new engines, no massive erection of wind turbines throughout the nation’s midsection, no development of delivery systems for that energy. Thankfully, it presents none of the potential for human combustion pregnant in the transfer to a new and less stable energy source.

Drilling in ANWR, and offshore, would impact oil prices and make the nation less dependent on foreign oil, while a long-range transfer away from fossil fuels is developed. Moreover, drilling will bring the cost of transportation lower than Pickens’ alternative. As Pope notes, CNG “emits about one-third less carbon than gasoline” and costs about half as much as the current going rate (which, it should be noted, it still higher than gasoline prices when President Bush took office). Nuclear energy safely powers millions of homes around the world and represents a long-term solution in any realistic plan to free us of our dependence on Saudi oil sheikhs.

Still, at least T. Boone Pickens is thinking about the issue creatively. If the questions relating to CNG and wind power can be resolved, his plan may be a long-term boon for our nation.

Until then, color me unconvinced.

This story originally appeared as the lead story on Monday, July 21, 2008, on FrontPage Magazine.