Legendary Texas oilman T. Boone Pickens is half right. We do need to harness this country's wind resources for a homegrown source of electricity, as he has been urging this summer in expensive television ads. And we do need to reduce the $700 billion we may soon be paying annually for imported oil.
But part two of Pickens's plan -- to move natural gas out of electricity production and use it to fuel cars instead -- just doesn't make sense.
Why not use the wind-generated electricity to power cars directly? Natural gas is still a fossil fuel that emits climate-changing gases when burned.
Plug-in cars are here, nearly ready to market. We just need to put wind in the driver's seat. Several major auto manufacturers, including GM, Ford, Toyota and Nissan, are producing plug-in hybrids. Both Toyota and GM are committed to marketing plug-in hybrids in 2010. Toyota might even try to deliver a plug-in version of its Prius gas-electric hybrid, the bestseller whose U.S. sales match those of all other hybrids combined, next year.
GM is in the game, too, with its Chevrolet Volt. This plug-in car is essentially an electric car with an auxiliary gasoline engine that generates electricity to recharge the batteries when needed. It boasts an all-electric range of 40 miles, more than adequate for most daily driving. GM reports that under typical driving conditions, the Volt averages 151 miles per gallon.
This new car technology is matched by new wind-turbine technology, setting the stage for an automotive-fuel economy powered largely by cheap wind energy. The Energy Department notes that North Dakota, Kansas and Texas alone have enough wind energy to easily satisfy national electricity needs. To actually put wind power on the road, of course, we would have to tap the wind resources in nearly all the states, plus those that are off-shore, which the department says can meet 70 percent of national electricity needs.
Texas, this country's leading oil producer for the last century, is now our leading generator of electricity from wind, having eclipsed California two years ago. With more than 5,500 megawatts of wind-generating capacity now in operation and two vast wind-farm complexes under development, the state will have more than 20,000 megawatts of wind-generating capacity (think 20 coal-fired power plants). Pickens, with his own 4,000-megawatt wind farm under development in the Texas Panhandle, is one of the largest investors.
The key to this massive development is the state government's participation. The state facilitated the construction of transmission lines that link the strong wind resources in West Texas and the Panhandle to major markets -- known as "load centers" -- in Dallas, Fort Worth and Houston.
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While many residents in some places, such as Cape Cod, take a NIMBY (Not In My Backyard) view of wind farms, the opposite is true in much of the rest of the country -- including the ranch country that extends from Texas north through the Dakotas. There, it's a PIMBY (Put It in My Backyard) issue. In ranching regions, competition among communities for these wind farms, and the jobs and tax revenues that come with them, is intense. Each wind turbine on a rancher's land typically brings a royalty of $3,000 to $10,000 per year, with no investment on the landowner's part. And the ranchers can continue to graze cattle on the land.
Some 30 states now have commercial-scale wind farms. The potential -- and the desire for wind energy -- is high. That's because wind wins on almost every count. It is carbon-free, cheap, abundant and inexhaustible -- and it is ours. No one can embargo the supply, the price never changes, and wind farms can be built in 12 months.
This is why shifting to natural gas to fuel cars, as Pickens recommends, isn't the best move. In contrast to wind-generated electricity, where costs are falling, the price of natural gas is on its way up.
Beyond that, there's the infrastructure question. How do we get the natural gas to the nation's service stations? These stations also would need to install pumps for natural gas, in addition to those for gasoline.
One of the attractions of pairing wind energy and plug-in hybrid cars is that it would not require new infrastructure. Indeed, a study by Pacific Northwest National Laboratory points out that the existing grid, using its off-peak capacity to recharge cars, could provide electricity for more than 70 percent of the U.S. fleet if all cars were plug-in hybrids.
While gasoline prices are probably headed to $5 to $10 a gallon, the wind-generated-electricity equivalent of a gallon of gasoline costs less than $1.
We are now in a position to launch a crash program to convert to plug-in hybrids on a massive scale and at wartime speed. This would resuscitate Detroit, reinvigorate thousands of the country's wind-rich rural communities, dramatically cut carbon emissions and quickly reduce the vast outflow of dollars for imported oil.
The car companies themselves seem on board -- witness GM's massive advertising push for the Chevy Volt. The ad ends with the Volt, standing at the base of snow-capped mountains, clouds traveling swiftly overhead. Its launch is targeted for 2010. Perhaps by then, the wind moving the clouds will also power the sleek-looking sedan below.