One-time corporate raider and always-outsize Texas oilman (is there any other kind?) T. Boone Pickens has made a very public move in support of renewables, launching what he's modestly dubbed the "Pickens Plan" for using wind energy to provide a fifth of the United States' electricity and the natural gas saved from that switch-over to power its vehicles.
Pickens' pronouncements are more than a lot of hot air – he's already a year into efforts to build the world's largest wind farm, a 4,000-megawatt facility in the Texas panhandle, and has placed a $2 billion order with General Electric for 667 wind turbines. Arguably, that kind of money speaks louder than the press conference he held today, although it's predicted the Pickens Plan may have the largest public-policy PR effort ever.
It's worth noting that the 80-year-old Pickens knows his PR blitzes – he funded the Swift Boat campaign against John Kerry in 2004. And this current effort shares its timing with that earlier campaign – Pickens clearly wants to influence this election ("We're organizing behind the Pickens Plan now to ensure our voices will be heard by the next administration"), if not through the person chosen than through the policies his administration follows.
Pickens has suggested his plan could be in place within 10 years if the politicos in the District of Columbia approach the issue as a "national emergency." That said, and true to his history, Pickens expects the burden of the project to be borne mostly by private investors.
In February, Miller-McCune.com's look at wind power suggested ways the federal government could foster wind. Our Frank Nelson noted that, despite growth in wind-generated electrical production year over year, "wind's contribution to the national electricity supply remains stubbornly low." That article suggested a greater government role in subsidizing big wind projects, and a second article looked at using tax credits to support smaller projects.
Given Pickens' petro roots, he approaches wind from an oil perspective. Noting that the U.S. imports 70 percent of the oil it uses, that it already uses a quarter of the world's total production and that oil production is falling, his plan states, "Oil is getting more expensive to produce, harder to find and there just isn't enough of it to keep up with demand. The simple truth is that cheap and easy oil is gone."
But, his plan adds, the Great Plains states "are home to the greatest wind energy potential in the world – by far."
The cost to tap that is both high and low, his plan continues. "Building wind facilities in the corridor that stretches from the Texas panhandle to North Dakota could produce 20 percent of the electricity for the United States at a cost of $1 trillion. It would take another $200 billion to build the capacity to transmit that energy to cities and towns. That's a lot of money, but it's a one-time cost. And compared to the $700 billion we spend on foreign oil every year, it's a bargain."
And, of course, when that money starts blowing into wind and natural gas, Pickens himself (or his heirs) likely will profit handsomely, although it's hard to fault him from making money by actually doing something to break America's carbon addiction instead of just endlessly jawing about it. Plus, Pickens' support lends renewables a sort of "Nixon goes to China" endorsement, with a cold-eyed capitalist and petrocrat (although with philanthropic tendencies) making a big bet in the preserve of the sandal-wearing utopiariat.
But the world isn't totally upside down — while the Pickens Plan highlights wind and natural gas's attractiveness for domestic employment, energy security, price and feasibility, one issue that doesn't raise its head in his materials is global warming.