Tuesday, July 08, 2008

Pickens Plan for Wind and Natural Gas

T. Boone Pickens announced his vision for lessening the U.S.'s dependence on imported oil today. You can read more about it on the site he's set up, PickensPlan. Here's what Justin Fox at Time has to say. Fox does a little more motive sifting than I'd like, but that's inevitable, for reasons that shall become clear.

The plan, in a nutshell, is this. The U.S. should convert as much of its automobile fleet as possible from gasoline to compressed natural gas (CNG) as quickly as it can. The benefit is that we produce most of our natural gas domestically, whereas we import 70% of our oil--sending American dollars out of the country, into the grubby fists of various thugs, kleptocrats, fanatics, and all-around assholes. (There is also an environmental benefit, as natural gas burns cleaner than gasoline.)

But wait a minute? Don't we already use every Btu of gas that we produce? Yep--about 22% of America's electricity is generated with natural gas (not to mention homes that are heated with and cook with gas). So if we switch all that electricity-producing gas to vehicle-powering gas, where do we get the electricity from?

Boone's answer is windmills. He believes that vast quantities of windmills, built north-to-south in the Great Plains, where wind blows down unimpeded from Canada, can produce that 22% of America's electricity currently being produced by gas.

Now here is the intentions part--Pickens is building right now the world's biggest wind farm. And this is T. Boone Pickens--he's not doing it for charity. So his multi-million dollar promotion of CNG cars and wind power can be seen as self-serving--$58 million dollars in publicity to help maximize the return on a $10 billion dollar investment. If this campaign helps his investment return more than 5.8%, he's made money. But frankly, if just making 5.8+% were his goal, there are a lot easier ways. Therefore, his motives are not just money.

Can the plan work? Well, CNG cars are not exotic, high-tech devices that still have to be invented (like the batteries for the Chevy Volt). There are many CNG vehicles in the U.S., such as these Logan Airport CNG busses:

Logan Shuttle CNG Buses against the downtown Boston skyline.

In Argentina, 15% of the vehicles on the road are powered by CNG.

So why not? Well, the first thing that comes to mind is that there isn't an infrastructure for CNG vehicles here. But perhaps that is not a problem. If your house is already heated by gas, maybe it would be possible to fuel up at home, using some kind of CNG fueling appliance hooked into your gas, just like your dryer is.

The bigger problem, I think, is with electricity. I hope some readers who work for utilities can jump in here and help explain how the power grid works, but I'll do my best. To simplify, there are two states for electricity usage in a given grid. There is the base load, which is the minimum draw on the power generators, and the peak load, which is the maximum. In hot places like Houston, the base load is late at night, when the AC is straining least, the lights are off, no one is microwaving or watching the plasma TV or playing Wii. This is the minimum amount of electricity that the utilities have to collectively produce. Then in the afternoon, when the ACs are blowing their hardest, and lots of electronic appliances and gadgets are in use, is when you have peak load.

Now what is cool about gas turbines is that they can be relatively easily turned on and off, or their power turned up or down. This gives the utility the ability produce just enough electricity as is needed at a given moment. A record breaking hot day? Crank the gas turbines a little higher. So aside from the fact that it is relatively clean and mostly domestic, gas is great because it allows electricity to be generated efficiently and when it is needed.

Wind turbines are almost exactly the opposite. They produce electricity when the wind is blowing. Period. You can't turn the wind on and off. You can't add capacity when you need it. Is this a fatal flaw? I don't know. But it is a worry if you are going to replace a completely dependable electricity source with an inherently unreliable one.

But let's say the Chevy Volt lives up to its promise, and within a couple of years, we have lots of electric cars available from multiple manufacturers. Well, as America's car fleet is replaced by electric cars (gradually, of course), there will be a larger draw on the electric grid. People will be plugging in their cars at night. If millions of people do this, it may cause the base load time to shift from late at night to, say, 9 am, after folks have unplugged their cars and left for work.

Given this, we will still need all those gas turbine plants. But we will also need wind farms. So T. Boone still wins--he gets even richer, and we reduce our oil imports.

I work for a natural gas E&P company, so this plan has my vote! Heh. Actually, I wonder how it gets implemented, in Pickens' mind. I'm sure we'll hear more about that as time goes on. I'm interested, though.


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Blogger Scotty said...

There is a Public Forum for discussions on Pickens Plan : www.pickensenergyplan.com
See you there !

12:10 AM  
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