Joe Romm, one of the fastest bloggers in the post-typewriter era, was both quick and correct in his analysis of T. Boone Pickens’ energy plan. If you’re reading this, Mr. Pickens, have your people call Joe’s people. You guys need to talk.
Since Pickens’ $58 million ad campaign is likely to be with us for awhile, I’d like to add some thoughts to Joe’s, particularly about the highest and best use of America’s remaining and responsibly recoverable natural gas supplies.
First, my two cents on wind: As Joe points out, Pickens’ wind strategy is on the right track. In effect, the former oilman is proposing that America do what Texas is doing. Texas leads the nation in wind power. In a series of progressive actions in recent years, the state legislature established a renewable energy portfolio standard that was quickly achieved, and put a program in place to identify where the electric grid should be expanded to reach places where the wind blows most. Today, Texas is considering an investment of $6.4 billion to build new transmission capable of moving 17,000 megawatts of new wind power.
Pickens doesn’t want to wait for the bureaucracy. He’s investing $2 billion to build the world’s largest wind farm and plans to pay for the transmission lines that will carry the power from the Texas panhandle to Dallas.
A big wind plan would be good for the economy, particularly in the nation’s job-starved rural areas. Last time I checked, farmers and ranchers nationwide could earn $5,000 annually for each tiny piece of land they lease to host a turbine. There aren’t many crops — legal crops, at least — that can earn that kind of money.
In windy Nolan County, Texas, wind power has created 1,000 new jobs and is expected to produce $315 million in revenues. In rural Colorado, the Danish wind manufacturer Vestas is building two plants to manufacture wind blades and towers, creating hundreds of new jobs. The company reportedly is manufacturing in the United States because wind turbines built with Euros would be too expensive in the U.S. market at today’s exchange rates; it may have picked Colorado because of Gov. Bill Ritter’s plan to build a “new energy economy”.
The biggest complaint about wind power — that it is an intermittent resource — can be solved with emerging storage technologies, including plug-in hybrid vehicles that recharge at night when the wind blows best and feed electricity back into the grid during the day when the vehicles are parked at home or work. That brings us to the second part of Pickens’ plan and to Joe’s correct judgment that using natural gas to run vehicles rather than power plants is a bad idea.
Because we need to reduce carbon emissions, because we don’t have limitless supplies of domestic oil and gas, and because we would be stupid to allow even more dependence on foreign resources, domestic natural gas should be treated carefully as transition fuel to a sustainable low-carbon economy. Given the growing urgency for climate action, it makes sense to use natural gas, the cleanest of the fossil fuels, to replace coal, the dirtiest.
Pickens’ plan to substitute natural gas for imported oil is consistent with national policy today, but that policy needs to be revised. Natural gas in various forms — liquefied (LNG), compressed (CNG) and liquefied petroleum gas (LPG), a byproduct of natural gas production and oil refining — is classified under federal law as one of the fuels we should be using more to cut oil imports.
The Energy Policy Act of 1992 required large fleets to begin converting to a variety of alternative fuels, including natural gas. Today, there are about 130,000 natural gas vehicles (NGVs) on the road in the U.S. New vehicles built to use natural gas exclusively can receive federal tax credits ranging from $2,500 to $32,000, depending on the size of the vehicle. Some refueling capacity already is in place. The U.S. Department of Energy counts 785 refueling sites for CNG, 39 for LNG and more than 2,200 for LPG.
Advocates of NGVs claim that with the right government support, natural gas could displace more than 10 billion gallons of gasoline equivalent by 2017. But given the evolution of electric vehicle technology and renewable power technologies, the question is whether personal transportation is the highest and best use of America’s natural gas supplies.
It’s not. A better plan is to
- convert as many as possible of our existing coal-fired power plants to natural gas;
- convert our transportation fleet as quickly as possible to high-efficiency, low-emission vehicles powered principally by electricity;
- modernize our electric grid to reach and better accommodate wind and solar resources;
- launch an economy-wide clean energy surge that, among other things, gives us zero-net-carbon buildings by 2030 to reduce the growth in electricity demand; and
- invest in mass transit, high-speed rail and other measures to dramatically reduce the nation’s passenger vehicle miles.
Smarter people than I need to run the numbers, but here are a few reasons why I think natural gas should replace coal while electricity replaces petroleum:
- Because natural gas produces fewer carbon emissions, utilities will be motivated to use it rather than coal once Congress puts a cap-and-trade regime in place. Assuming that utilities are permitted to trade carbon allowances, they’ll make more money using cleaner fuels;
- While there are high hopes for technology that will allow new coal plants to capture and store their carbon emissions in the future, existing conventional coal plants remain a substantial source of emissions. To achieve the emission reductions we need and do so quickly, we should begin converting existing coal plants to natural gas rather than depending solely on still-unproven carbon sequestration.
- Because natural gas is a finite fuel, big investments in new vehicles and fueling infrastructure will be stranded some day as the fuel becomes too expensive to compete with wind, solar and other emerging technologies. That’s a waste of money. It would be better spent on the transition objectives I listed above, including Pickens’ proposal for a massive investment in wind farms through the nation’s midsection and the transmission needed to move the power — an enterprise the Department of Energy estimates will cost $1.2 trillion.
Getting coal out of our power system seems on its face to be an excellent step.
– Bill B.