Argument blowing in the wind

Jack Kelly:

If you watch cable TV, chances are you've seen an ad promoting T. Boone Pickens' plan for reducing the vast sums we're spending on imported oil.

Hearts quickened in the Democratic Party because Mr. Pickens says in the ad: "this is one emergency we can't drill our way out of." That's what Democrats say when they block drilling off our coasts and in Arctic National Wildlife Reserve. But the budding romance cooled when Mr. Pickens made it clear he supports lifting those drilling bans.

Mr. Pickens' plan has two key elements. The first is to build a massive series of wind farms on the Great Plains. The second is to convert most motor vehicles in the U.S. to run on compressed natural gas.

Mr. Pickens is putting his money where his mouth is. He's investing $2 billion into developing the largest wind farm in America, near Pampa in the Texas Panhandle.

The Energy Department estimated in a study released in May that there are 18,000 square miles of good wind sites in the United States. If 142,060 towers of 1.5 megawatts were placed on those sites, they could produce 20 percent of the electricity we need, DOE said. With a $1.2 trillion crash program, we could produce that much electricity from wind in 10 years, Mr. Pickens asserts.

But to get to the 20 percent figure, DOE assumed we'd use less electricity than we actually do, said science writer Eric Rosenbloom. And DOE assumed all the wind turbines would be running at rated capacity. Studies in Europe indicate wind turbines there run, on average, at less than 20 percent of rated capacity. This is mostly because the wind isn't always blowing. And the buildup of dead bugs can cut maximum power generated by a wind turbine by up to 50 percent.

We get less than 1 percent of our electricity from wind. Since it may take 5 times as many wind turbines to produce the electricity DOE projects, the idea we could get 20 percent of our energy from wind in a decade is fanciful, no matter how many taxpayer dollars are thrown at it.

The 18,000 square miles of good wind sites is roughly equivalent to New Hampshire and Vermont combined. Much of that land is farmland. To withdraw it from agriculture could send food prices soaring.

And wind energy is expensive. The Energy Information Administration estimates that in 2016 it will cost 8.1 cents per kilowatt-hour to produce electricity from wind, when you combine capital construction costs with operating costs. That's 21 percent more than what it would cost to generate electricity from a new nuclear plant, 37 percent more than from a new plant that burns pulverized coal.

Mr. Pickens is on sounder ground on the second part of his plan. Burning natural gas produces significantly fewer pollutants than gasoline. In most places, compressed natural gas can be purchased for less than $2 a gallon. And while we import nearly 70 percent of the oil we use, 98 percent of our natural gas comes from the United States.


Kelly's argument about the deficiencies of wind power are very different than the opposition of Democrats who either object to the aesthetics or to the location. His best arguments are the ones on the generators not running at rated capacity most of the time and the inefficiency caused by having to clean the bugs off the blades. I don't think you lose that much farmland because you can still work around the generators. I think in West Texas where many are located the cattle still graze around the turbines.

On the natural gas vehicles, I think there is real potential. and it may be easier to get the infrastructure in place than many think. People may even be able to tap the natural gas that has already been piped to their home. That does raise issues on collecting fuel taxes which are used to build and maintain highways. If the Chevy volt works and could be converted to a natural gas backup, you would have a real gas saver.


  1. "Science writer Eric Rosenbloom" also points out that more wind means more natural gas plants, not fewer:

    "But the real flaw in the Pickensplan is the idea that wind would replace natural gas in the production of electricity. In fact, the addition of substantial wind energy plant would require the addition of a similar amount of natural gas plants, because those are the only ones that are flexible enough to start quickly and operate over a wide range of loads to balance the fluctuating and largely unpredictable infeed from wind turbines."

  2. Hey,
    I am an American and live in Argentina. We use G.N.C. (compressed natural gas) for autos and trucks. Argentina has been using this system for years. GNC is a lot cheaper than refined fuels. You can get GNC at any gas station. It is stored in underground tanks just like regular fuel. The conversion kits are relatively inexpensive and you can still run your car on gas if need be. so Mr. Pickens is on the right path and the Demoncrats are still wanting us to buy energy from someone else who don't give a hoot about the USA.

  3. But building wind energy will require more natural gas for electricity, so it actually moves us away from the goal of using it for transport.


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