25 Aug 2008: Analysis

A Reality Check on
the Pickens Energy Plan

Texas billionaire T. Boone Pickens has always been one to think big. But his sweeping 10-year energy plan for America faces obstacles that may be insurmountable.

by vaclav smil

For the past two months, it has been hard to avoid T. Boone Pickens, the 80-year-old Texas oilman, billionaire, and former corporate raider. First, he was all over the TV news introducing his grand, 10-year energy plan for America, which calls for massive construction of wind power turbines and powering many of the country’s cars on natural gas. Then he testified before Congress, warning that the U.S.’s oil addiction — the nation spends $700 billion a year importing oil — amounted to the greatest transfer of wealth in the history of mankind. Soon he was back on TV with a $58 million advertising blitz to rally public support for his proposal, the Pickens Plan.

Ever the shrewd entrepreneur — Pickens is building the world’s biggest wind farm in Texas and owns the country’s largest network of natural gas filling stations — he framed the reasons for taking these radical steps in a concise and accurate manner: America’s addiction to oil “threatens our economy, our environment and our national security...and it ties our hands as a nation and a people.”

There is much to admire in the Pickens Plan, but its sheer grandiosity raises serious doubts as to whether it can be realized: It would require building more than 100,000 wind turbines, connecting them to large cities with at least 40,000 miles of transmission lines, and converting tens of millions of cars to natural gas fuel. To accomplish this within a decade would be a Herculean effort that simply may not be achievable.

Pickens Plan
Pickens’ prime-time TV ads have been omnipresent in recent weeks, vying with political campaign ads for public attention.
Perhaps the greatest appeal of the Pickens Plan is its cascading simplicity. First, Pickens wants to dot the Great Plains (“the Saudi Arabia of wind power”) with wind turbines to replace all the electricity currently produced by burning natural gas. Second, he wants to use the natural gas freed by wind-powered generation to run efficient and clean natural gas vehicles. Third, he believes that this substitution will create a massive, new domestic aerospace-like industry — with well-paying jobs in the production of giant turbines and auxiliary equipment — that will bring economic revival to the depopulating Great Plains. Finally, Pickens says his plan would reduce the huge outflow of wealth to oil-producing nations as the U.S. cuts its oil imports by more than one-third.

If this were an opera, shouts of “Bravissimo!” would be in order. But despite its many positives, the timely realization of the Pickens Plan faces a number of extraordinary challenges, to say the least. The engineering and financial hurdles are daunting: Pickens proposes $1 trillion in private investment to build the wind turbines that will stretch from the Texas panhandle to the Canadian border and another $200 billion (a conservative estimate) to construct a new electric grid connecting this archipelago of wind farms to major cities. Indeed, his plan is so ambitious that he compares it to the construction of the Interstate Highway System in the 1950s.

Alas, that booming era in American history is long gone, and Pickens is proposing his plan in a country where the political system is gridlocked and the economic problems are deep. The realities of today’s America — the state of its finances (huge deficits everywhere), the demise of its manufacturing (rising dependence on imports of all kind), and the devaluation of its currency — do not create an impression of a vigorous seeker of new paths; besides, addicts are not usually zealous agents of their own recovery, and addiction to imported oil is exceedingly strong.

So while I would love to see this grand Texan challenge succeed, America’s dysfunctional leadership may yet prove its undoing. The plan would require some resolute federal and state legislative decisions. Yet how can we take seriously a Congress which, just two weeks after its members applauded the Pickens Plan, balked at extending the wind energy tax credits essential to the success of the project? Those credits expire at the end of the year. In addition, the plan would have to comply with a multitude of laws and regulations (from environmental assessments to complicated rights-of-way easements), and some of its components would certainly be challenged in the courts, delaying its completion. Pickens apparently appreciates that the plan can be taken seriously only if a well-organized media campaign puts serious political pressure on Congress and helps weaken the many federal and state regulatory obstacles.

However, unlike Al Gore’s utterly unrealistic plan — which calls for entirely “re-powering” America in a decade by completely replacing the enormous fossil-fuel electricity infrastructure with renewable sources — the Pickens Plan sets out a challenging, but not impossible, technical goal. Gore’s plan not only assumes an impossibly short timeline, but it also promises totally unrealistic, microchip-like declines in the cost of these new energy sources.

With Pickens’ plan, the cost estimates are essentially correct as far as today’s prices go. But megaprojects extending over a decade tend to have serious cost overruns, thus Pickens’ plan could cost twice as much as is now estimated.

Even more importantly, it is unclear if Pickens appreciates the many technical challenges that have to be solved to make the plan work, whether in one decade, as he has proposed, or in two or three decades. Or perhaps he understands the hurdles perfectly well but does not want to weaken the powerful message of the plan’s benefits by acknowledging its looming challenges.

Pickens Plan
Pickens’ plan sees wind power replacing natural gas as an electricity source, with natural gas being used to power cars in the U.S.
One of the biggest problems is his assumption that natural gas, which now generates about 22 percent of U.S. electricity, can be handily replaced by wind power. In America today, baseline power production is met by coal-fired stations and nuclear plants, which, respectively, work 70 percent and 90 percent of the time delivering electricity into the grid. Natural-gas power plants operate, on average, only 21 percent of the time, meeting peak demand on hot summer days and cold winter nights.

Under Pickens’ plan, wind turbines would produce the same amount of electricity — 22 percent — as natural gas currently does. But wind is a fickle source of power, so to be available on demand — as natural gas now is — considerably more turbines would have to be constructed than envisioned in his plan. Only detailed simulations of generation and consumption patterns could determine the actual number of turbines, their optimal locations, and the requisite high-voltage (HV) interconnections needed to substitute one form of generation for another — and no such simulations have been done.

Pickens’ projections about how many new turbines will be needed under his plan, as well as the rate of constructing new transmission lines, also are highly optimistic. In 2007, U.S. utilities installed about 3,200 turbines with a total generating capacity of 5.24 gigawatts of electricity: If these turbines were to generate electricity 25 percent of the time — a typical load factor — they would produce enough electricity for about one million households for a year. (The U.S. has more than 110 million households.) But even if today’s natural gas-fired power plant capacity were replaced at an unrealistic 1:1 ratio by wind turbines, Pickens is talking about installing 40 gigawatts of wind power a year — roughly 8 times the 2007 pace. And even if the turbines were to average 3 megawatts (larger than today’s mean), some 130,000 of them would be needed. With determination and ample financing, that is a plausible pace.

But the Pickens Plan also estimates spending $200 billion for building new high-voltage (HV) transmission links to carry electricity from the Great Plains to the coasts. Recent construction costs of HV lines have ranged from less than $2 million per mile to more than $5 million per mile; the latter rate would get America about 40,000 miles of new HV connections. Without knowing the specifics, which Pickens' plan do not address, this may or may not be enough to link nearly 400 gigawatts of newly installed wind-generating capacity in the Dakotas, Nebraska, Kansas, Oklahoma, and Texas with high urban concentrations on the coasts. In any case, the construction pace would be a huge challenge. During the 1990s, U.S. utilities built about 9,700 miles of new HV lines and plans for this decade amount to less than 8,000 miles — one-fifth to one-sixth of the 40,000 to 50,000 miles required under the Pickens plan.

And then there is the switch to natural gas vehicles. While they are efficient, clean, and entirely desirable (I had advocated their use as far back as the first oil "crisis" of 1973), scaling of their ownership to tens of millions units, from fewer than 200,000 such cars today, would be extremely difficult to do in a single decade — and only a few of America’s nearly 120,000 service stations now offer natural gas. Unfortunately, America also is increasingly an importer of natural gas (buying 18 percent of total global consumption in 2007). And natural gas prices follow those of crude oil, a reality that could reduce the plan’s eventual impact on the trade deficit — and sharply reducing this wealth transfer is one of Pickens’ major goals.

Finally, a sobering thought about the efficacy of the Pickens Plan to prevent the massive wealth transfer that the Texan rightly abhors. If oil prices were to stabilize at the level prevailing in mid-August 2008, then Middle Eastern exporters will end up earning nearly one trillion dollars for their heavy, sulfurous crudes in 2008. Unchanged or growing oil imports, with prices staying well above $100 per barrel, would translate to an outflow of some $10 trillion in a decade. But even if the Pickens plan were to reduce that by more than a third, the country would still be running a huge trade deficit that precludes the re-emergence of a strong dollar: Given America’s large budget deficit and more than $40 trillion of assorted debts and uncovered obligations, even a perfect realization of the Pickens Plan would still leave the U.S. on a weakening economic trajectory.

The Texas oilman is right: This is a crisis of America’s own making. Federal mileage standards doubled America’s passenger car fuel efficiency between 1976 and 1986, to 27.5 mpg. But with the ensuing decades of inexpensive oil, no new standards were set. A mere continuation of the 1976-1986 rate of improvement would have meant that American cars today would average close to 50 mpg, eliminating the need for nearly 70 percent of the crude oil we import. Moreover, a massive adoption of SUVs pushed the passenger vehicle fleet performance to just 22 mpg by 2006. And if America hopes to make up for its gasoline profligacy with more drilling, that will not prove to be effective solution: More oil will be discovered in America’s offshore waters, but not nearly enough to make the country self-sufficient, even after two to three decades of such activity.

Unfortunately, nothing — and certainly not the Pickens Plan — offers an effective technical fix in just a decade. America’s per capita energy consumption remains twice as high as the European Union’s and Japan’s. The era of Americans driving two SUVs to 5,000-square-foot houses 50 miles from city centers may be over. But for the U.S., even more radical, protracted and very painful adjustments will be needed to cure the nation’s most incapacitating addiction.

POSTED ON 25 Aug 2008 IN Business & Innovation Business & Innovation Energy Policy & Politics North America 


Mr. Smil,

While you take every other issue to task, you miss the opportunity to dispel the 'transfer of wealth' myth.

Your readers may appreciate this clip from a Library of Economics and Liberty podcast addressing just this myth:

Don Boudreaux (George Mason University) on Globalization and Trade Deficits

In summary, we send $700b/yr but receive that amount back in oil, so while there is indeed a transfer of wealth, it is bi-directional and no debt is created in the process between the two parties doing the 'trading.'

Though I suppose, 'we buy $700b/yr in oil...' isn't as sensational as 'we transfer $700b/yr of our wealth to oil producing nations.' Oh well.

In any case that podcast is a good listen, enjoy.

Posted by Gabriel Kent on 25 Aug 2008

My biggest issue with Picken's plan isn't necessary its "Olympian" size.

It's absolutely doable, and with upcoming 6 MW Turbines (which would efficiently cut the numbers of windmills that you pointed out by half) and the fact that wind-powers run 24/7 whereas solar only run 1/2 of that time (and the "ficklish" nature is assuaged by the simple fact that its a networked turbine, when one falls, the other one in another location picks up the slate).

The issue is exactly how Picken will be able to transport electricity, in a "supergrid" formation using existing HVAC powerlines.

A simple glance at the map of Great Plains which includes surrounding states, such as 4 states over like California, highlights the great distance that the electricity would have to travel just to make an impact on the nation-wide energy crisis.

Quick review of Physics: Applying the formula Power Loss = I^2*R, means that the power loss is caused by the resistance of the conducting material, as well as that if one was to "up" the current . . say by a factor of 10, then the power loss would increase nearly a factor of 100.

It creates an odd paradox of some sort, for it states that it would be in our best interest (with today's technology) to send the minimal amount of current to ensure best output. Obviously, that's unacceptable for us, power-hungry citizens of United States.

Power from the HVAC lines usually only ends up in two places.
1. In your appliance
2. Lost as "Heat" warming up those power-lines (and ambient atmosphere)

Unless we create some super-conducting line which has a R=0 (or as close to it as possible), then transmitting power from Great Plains would have suffer from severe power loss, as it transverse states via HVAC powerlines. The most recent promise can be found in nanotechnology, I'm still withholding my judgement on that till I actually see it working.

On the bright side: Plans have been implemented in Europe since the 1930s that utilizes HVDC (High Voltage Direct Current) which has a better return (only losing 3% of electricity over 1,000 KM). They've transferred electricity all the way from North Africa to Europe with only 10% loss. [HVAC has 15%+ loss]

Still . . . does the Picken Plan count on installing HVDC or the ancient HVAC to do the transmitting? Of course, my money is on HVDC, but would our beloved government see it as a worthwhile investment to replace the aging HVAC lines with HVDC? There, lies the rub. . . not the turbines.

To paraphrase what the CEO of GM's said about the Volt Vehicle. . . "Americans NEED this power system. Period."
Posted by william harkness on 25 Aug 2008

Another big win from this proposal, which has not yet been mentioned is the reduction in carbon emissions it will deliver.

The benefits of reduction of emissions from the vehicle fleet would offer substantial cuts over the current 2xSUVx50 miles "business as usual" paradigm.

The US is still the bad boy in global climate change circles. This Plan offers a substantial opportunity not only to make domestic carbon emissions savings, but also demonstrate a low-carbon alternative to the above model which is remains the aspirational model for the developing world.

I agree that turbine technology is improving and will continue to do so over the projected decade, reducing the number of turbines required, which will help to make the Plan more feasible.

The rate of turbine construction in the US is not the only measure for what can be achieved - China's rate of adoption of wind power has been phenomenal. It would be worth studying what facilitated this. (and it was not just CDM)

Professor Smir closes by implying that the Pickens Plan will lnot divert the US from its current ". . .falling economic trajectory". That may be so, but the Plan should not be rejected because it does not provide a "silver bullet" solution to all of America's economic woes.

While there may still be issues to resolve it appears to offer a substantial part of the solution to address America's oil dependence and climate change responsibilities.

Mike Kilburn
Civic Exchange
Hong Kong

Posted by Mike Kilburn on 27 Aug 2008

While the article by Vaclav Smil impresses for its technical grasp, it ignores the fact that great changes in America are always accompanied by a cultural shift that increases the dynamic for change. The New Deal, the Interstate Highway System, the Civil Rights movement, putting "a man on the moon" within a decade would have been impossible without invigorating, empowering changes in public attitude.
Posted by TRB on 03 Sep 2008

This is both a quite interesting and a quite troubling review.

Want to talk problems with Pickens' Plan? How about that there is zero (ZERO!) discussion of energy efficiency. There is no discussion of Smart(er) Grid and how this can empower the use of more renewables. And, well, the focus on CNG is more to enrich Pickens' pockets than to solve problems. Ever greater electrification of transport (rail, PHEVs, EVs) could take up that wind-generated electricity.

There are very serious challenges to moving forward toward a sensible energy future. Sadly, while appealing on the surface, The Pickens Plan neither solves those challenges nor provides a good path forward.
Posted by A Siegel on 09 Sep 2008

There's a big problem with Pickens' idea/plan. Natural gas contain high amounts of methane which is a greenhouse gas. Using it in cars is not going to solve our carbon emissions issue. It will only make it worse.
Posted by Bob Genovese on 15 Sep 2008

Mr Smil,
Thank you for your article. It is obvious that you have a better technical grasp on this subject than most people. I will point out however that your criticism does contain some inaccuracies. His plan is not for everyone to drive a CNG vehicle, rather replace the biggest users in large transportation vehicles. He states that replacement of 1 million of such vehicles would make a significant difference and get us going in the right direction. My father was in government and he participated in the conversion of the trash hauler fleet to CNG in southern california, which works fine. Super Shuttle in california is another example of a company who has already found and implemented a financially feasible way to convert their transport vehicles to CNG. They even made their own filling stations along the major thoroughfares. Additionally, I happen to be someone who still believes in his country by the people and for the people. The part about your article which is particularly irritating is its negative "we can't do it" tone. Rather than poke holes in someone else's plan, please tell us how it can work. Let us know what your solution is. While Mr Pickens will undoubtedly earn significant profits through implementation of this plan, whoever helps the US get out of this horrible self inflicted crisis rightly deserves it. Unlike Gore, Pickens invites people to provide a better solution. With your education and technical expertise, I am sure you could become part of the solution and help work out at least some of the technical difficulties.
Yours respectfully.
Posted by Lance Niederhaus on 22 Sep 2008

Wouldn't it be easier if we just all drove 50 MPG cars? A 70% in reduction of import of oil makes it a no brainer.
Posted by jb on 29 Sep 2008

The pickens plan has no merit. The real way to do this is to get away from fossil fuels and quit whimping about over nuclear. Nuclear is proven clean energy.

Second, compressed natural gas requires a thousand dollar conversion cost for every car. It is less efficient than gasoline, and virtually unavailable. It requires high pressure tanks to hold the gas. The price of NG is not stable.

Better to sell hybrids and electric cars. While the electric car still has a low range, new cars like the Nissan, honda, and Toyota will extend their mpg to upwards of 100 mpg. Meanwhile the electric promises to be the best solution as soon as the range exceeds 150 miles on a charge.

Another argument which is mindless is that wealth is exchanged for oil. Go to Saudi or the Middle east anywhere. They don't have anything but oil. They have to import all their food, much water, and every necessity of life. So they contribute significantly to global consumption.

The rhetoric out of OPEC is often absurd and fanatical. One would think that the OPEC nations would compete against each other and welcome customers. When demand drops they will sing another tune. I think independence from burning fossil fuels in cars is achievable via electrics in 15 years. Trucks will eventually run bio fuels but not grown from crops which have no yield. Instead biofuels will be grown from algae. Once this is done, the entire world will be declamped from the odd behavior of the middle east will be forced to change.

Africa will remain in the stone age because Kipling was right.
Posted by Lordrobot on 02 Oct 2008

I recently read a morningstar article that stated the Haynesville Shale in Northwest Louisiana has an estimated 245 trillion cubic feet in recoverable gas. The U.S. consumed about 23 trillion cubic feet of natural gas in 2007. Why are we importing oil when we have a glut of natural gas? Discoveries like this make the switch to natural gas cars more realistic? The technology is proven (Honda Civic GX) and we sure could use the jobs? I'd rather see the $750 billion bailout dollars invested in a project like this.
Posted by Mark on 02 Oct 2008

Now that the "Great Depression " is upon us we can feel less deprived by, and more grateful for the plug in tandem-seat ultra-light commuter car. The alternative, walking, is still out of the question for most commuters, and the gas- guzzlers of the past are now firmly in the past. The impending deflation of the dollar due to the $700 Billion money printing panic extravaganza of the last throes of the corrupt Bush regime has guaranteed $14.00 gallon gasoline for a long time, and thus seals the lid on the coffin for "The Big Three" car makers and their 1930's sheet metal technology, gas guzzling vehicles. We can only go forward from here into a future, still uncertain, but likely highly dependent on Solar electric and wind development of the South Western U.S. and battery cars for short, plug in to plug in range of travel. Their batteries' charging cycles can ballast the solar/electric – wind system. Possibly Hydrogen cars can be used for for long range. I expect a total social paradigm shift to electric high speed rail for long range travel. Bio-diesel and natural gas may form a large part of the transportation picture in the near future but in the end we will rely on renewable sustainable technologies and social modifications of our lifestyle and habits to accommodate them. I, for one, am looking forward to a drink in the lounge car of a train on the way home, and a freshly charged commuter car to get me to and from my front door from the train station!

Posted by Uncle B on 07 Oct 2008

I found your article to be enlightened and interesting, but I believe there are a couple of points you missed.

First, growth in energy consumption in the US is driven primarily by population growth. In 10 years, demand for electricity will increase by a MINIMUM of 16% - so we would need that 22% just to keep up with demand (the other 6% is reserve for reliability). Given that reality, we are gonna need a whole lotta windmills.

Second, with the dramatic rise in crude oil prices and the downstream affect on products, we will see an increase in the use of NG in other areas. In particular, look for significant increases in consumption in the Northeast - where people will be making the switch from heating oil to NG where ever possible. As we already import significant quantities of NG, expect both imports and prices to rise in the next decade.

Thirdly, and probably most fundamental - you can't control the wind. To make the plan viable, you need to build four times the capacity that you require. Even then, you will still have to have Gas fired turbines as a part of the energy mix - both as a back-up for when big high pressure systems move through the plains and you have calm winds on those really hot summer days - when you need the energy the most. Additionally, Gas fired turbines as you point out are "peaker" units - they handle peaks in demand. This is because they can be ramped up and down very quickly - allowing the utilities to maintain a constant 60 Hz - Nuclear and Coal fired plants ramp very slowly. Without this fine-tuning ability, we will see a lot of surges and brown-outs. Can you do it with wind? Probably, most of the time - but you are going to need four MW of wind power capacity for every MW you really need. And you had better have a backup for those days when the wind does not cooperate.

I would hazard to guess that the project costs for "The Picken's Plan" would be on the order of 5 trillion dollars - and that is just the infrastructure - turbines and transmission...add in secondary costs - and we are talking real money.

Are you ready for the price of electricity to triple in the next 10 years? Ready for reliability to become an issue? If so, then support "The Picken's Plan" - you can help make him even richer - with your money.

Posted by Larry Kealey on 07 Oct 2008

Commenter wrote:

"There's a big problem with Pickens' idea/plan. Natural gas contain high amounts of methane which is a greenhouse gas. Using it in cars is not going to solve our carbon emissions issue. It will only make it worse."
According to:

"Composed primarily of methane, the main products of the combustion of natural gas are carbon dioxide and water vapor, the same compounds we exhale when we breathe."

Posted by Paul Broni on 12 Oct 2008

Commenter said:
"In summary, we send $700b/yr but receive that amount back in oil, so while there is indeed a transfer of wealth, it is bi-directional and no debt is created in the process between the two parties doing the 'trading.'"

This makes it sound like you believe that trade deficits are a non-issue. Is that your position?

Seems clear to me that if you buy $1 worth of oil and use it, you're left with nothing while the other guy still has your dollar.

I think the idea is that if the dollar remains in the US, it will continue to help the domestic economy, either by being in a US bank or by being spent or invested here in the US.
Posted by Paul Broni on 12 Oct 2008

Everyone "pickin away" at the Pickens plan needs to pull their head out of the tar sands...

Although it has a few problems and is painted in the best light. Don't blame him for putting his best foot forward. (And taking a chance with his fortune, I am sure he could go on making money they way he always has in the past.)

I will focus on what is good about this plan and point out the caveats and issues along the way where possible.

1) pointing to the high cost of this huge plan while ignoring the fact that it is a one time expense compared to 700 Billion oil deficit each year.
For those that don't get it thats 700 billion this year , next year ....30 years from now 700 billion ...(Assuming oil prices stay flat, not gunna hap'n) so in 30 years this will most likely be 7 trillion a year in oil import deficits. the cost of the pickens plan now!

2) As one reader noted(I am paraphrasing) We can prop up criminal bankers but we can't fix our own future?

3) Not all the energy produced will need to be shipped to the coasts. The local plains and their cities can be supplied first at a fraction of the cost of the whole plan. The wind supply profile, transmission costs and losses and the learning curve will be smoother and can be leveraged for the

expansion from the "mini pickens plan" (say 20% ?) This knowledge can be extrapolated to the more ambitious Pickens "vision of the future" plan. We give Avery Lovins credit for being 80 correct. Why can't we do it for Pickens? (Although he was drug through the streets as well for challenging

the status qou before becoming in vogue).

The excess power will not be an issue until the plan is built out past 1/3 or the transmission grid does not keep pace. But this is not going to be an issue until then because the local electricity needs of these areas will be met at a much cheaper cost due to less infrastructure needed to severe the local market.

4) These areas will have a economic Renaissance due to relatively cheap electricity because of the want for companies to be green the shared savings of carbon credits that should be shared with the communities near the green and clean source. Industries like meat lockers will be located near these cheap sources of power because they can be thought of as energy storage taking in power when their is no buyers and not taking power during peak

times because they can coast up in tempurature as they have stored coolness.
(Demand side management really is cool!)
So demand side changes will take up a lot of slack with these types of usage scenarios.

4) Although the pickens' plan can't solve the peaking problem and wind will make peaking actually rise in needed capacity, natural gas is not just used for peaking and on average may offset natural gas usage for power overall.

This needs to be studied in more detail to be able to say if it will increase or decrease on average.

5) I will trade a 20% reduction in oil imports or or coal burning and its CO2 footprint for the 5 to 10% increase in natural gas usage for peaking all day or all century long. (Even on parity).

6)Compressed air storage in salt domes and using existing dams to store potential energy when winds are high is still better even with their losses when the source is renewable and free. (make the good assumption that the capital costs can be funded with deficit reduction, and the saved cost of oil and mining coal and the environmental costs and CO2 trading system.

This could even be used to reduce the draining of lakes during droughts for needed electricity demand that impacts ecosystems and recreational tourism.

7) Hydrogen production can use the excess electricity as well. Although I am not a big believer in the hydrogen economy I would love to be proven wrong by smart scientists that are trying to solve the issues with it.

With that said some forms of hydrogen production and consumption make sense. Natural gas piplines and systems can hold hydrogen up to a small % (`5%??) without it being a lossy problem. This can be a form of energy storage as well especially in areas where natural gas pipelines traverse near the high wind areas where the wind turbines are going. Where fuel cells make sense for uninterrupted power needs, hydrogen delivery with or without CNG transport will make sense. Especially locally to the wind farms or relatively close based on a loss factor based on the transport storage mechanism. Hospitals. banks,server farms, 24/7 industrial operations are all potential users of this. Forget the hydrogen car for at least a decade or two if not forever. (Hey you scientist, smarter than thou, prove me wrong! Please!)

Ron Davison

Posted by Ron Davison on 07 Dec 2008

Dr. Smil's article brings up some valid points, but none more important to understand than the huge transmission issues presented by an implementation of the Pickens Plan. Do we really want transmission lines crisscrossing the United States at an ever increasing density?

And, do we really understand the tremendous land use impact of wind turbines that are implanted in concrete pads 30 feet by 30 feet in length and 6 feet deep? Not to mention the 60 foot wide road grids on each wind farm that are needed for the cranes to put them in place.

Then, what about the junkyards of turbines when they suddenly become obsolete as we enter the hydrogen age?

We know that wind energy is unreliable and has to be backed up by coal and nuclear plants for baseload demand. Wouldn't it be more environmentally astute to build new generation nuclear plants on the existing grid? These plants will generate reliable thermal power with zero GHG emissions. We also have the technology to build low emission IGCC (Integrated Gasificaition Combined Cycle) coal-fired plants on the existing grid that utilize carbon capture and storage.

This approach circumvents a massive crisscrossing of the U.S. landscape with high voltage power lines, and relieves the threat of eminent domain issues to thousands of American property owners.

Finally, the significant domestic shale gas resource that has been recently developed allows for transitioning our transportation fleets to the use of compressed natural gas - which is cleaner and reduces our dependence on imported oil.
Posted by W. Hoxie Smith on 15 Jun 2009

Capacity factor of wind turbines on the Plains is more like 40%, not the 25% load factor Smil mentions as normal. This is a 60% higher power output than Smil is using as a baseline for his analysis. The Stanford University study on interconnecting wind farms shows wind to have much higher uniformity and predictability of power production. Wind is a baseload power source, like coal or nuclear.

Although Smil sees the problem of power lines as primary to wind power development, he focuses on the wrong ones. What there is a huge lack of for wind power development is not trans-state high voltage distribution lines. Those already exist, servicing the large number of coal fired powerplants on the Plains. The real shortage is in 60 kV collector lines to service wind farms and carry that power to the distribution grid.

Coal and nuclear are point source power producers. Wind is distributive. Wind needs an overarching mega-region regulating and revenue distributing authority to become successful. Such an authority, covering blocks of states, would have the authority to plan, zone, collect and distribute revenue to investors, land owners, political subdivisions, all residents of the region, and pay for mitigation needs.

The key to wind is not developing storage systems, but overbuilding the system, allowing for feathering of unneeded turbines. With a regional revenue disbursing authority, a feathered turbine still produces a revenue stream. Such a system could also act like hydro or natural gas as a peaking system, since a feathered turbine can be turned on as easily and quickly as a gate lifted on hydro. At night, electricity from wind turbines could be used to synthesize nitrogen fertilizer as the original Haber-Bosch system was designed to do, eliminating the need for natural gas.

For wind to become a major player, it needs to be approached systematically, like the development of the Interstate Highway system. Piecemeal development, as being done presently, will never do the job.

Posted by fred schumacher on 20 Jan 2010

There are some intriguing comments in your post Fred. Can you explain what feathering is, what you mean by saying wind is distributive as opposed to being a point source (it is not as if you can move a wind mill or the wind and more than you can move a NG topping plant). I am interested to understand the economics around synthesizing nitrogen fertilizer and its use as a stored energy (through displacement of NG). Furthermore, I'd like to understand the various methods of stored power. eg is hydro pumping more economical than say compressed air.

Posted by kj otis on 30 Jan 2010

Comments have been closed on this feature.
Vaclav Smil is a Distinguished Professor in the Faculty of Environment at the University of Manitoba in Canada. He is the author of 27 books dealing with energy, environment, population, history, and technical advances. His latest books (all published in 2008) are Oil: A Beginner's Guide, Energy in Nature and Society, and Global Catastrophes and Trends: The Next 50 Years.



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Canada’s Indigenous Bands Rise
Up Against a Tar Sands Pipeline

TransCanada, the company behind the now-defunct Keystone XL, is proposing another pipeline that would ship Alberta tar sands oil to Canada’s Atlantic coast. But fierce opposition from First Nation communities could derail this controversial project.

Bitter Wind: A Town Divided Over
A Controversial Maine Wind Farm

The winning entry in the 2015 Yale Environment 360 Video Contest explores the competing economic interests and sharply divergent worldviews that emerge over plans to erect wind turbines on a scenic ridgeline in Maine. Videographer Roger Smith captures both sides of a debate that divides a rural New England community.


MORE IN Analysis

With Trump, China Emerges
As Global Leader on Climate

by isabel hilton
With Donald Trump threatening to withdraw from the Paris Agreement, China is ready to assume leadership of the world’s climate efforts. For China, it is a matter of self-interest – reducing the choking pollution in its cities and seizing the economic opportunities of a low-carbon future.

What a Trump Win Means
For the Global Climate Fight

by david victor
Donald Trump’s ascension to the presidency signals an end to American leadership on international climate policy. With the withdrawal of U.S. support, efforts to implement the Paris agreement and avoid the most devastating consequences of global warming have suffered a huge blow.

The Methane Riddle: What Is
Causing the Rise in Emissions?

by fred pearce
The cause of the rapid increase in methane emissions since 2007 has puzzled scientists. But new research finds some surprising culprits in the methane surge and shows that fossil-fuel sources have played a much larger role over time than previously estimated.

As Arctic Ocean Ice Disappears,
Global Climate Impacts Intensify

by peter wadhams
The top of the world is turning from white to blue in summer as the ice that has long covered the north polar seas melts away. This monumental change is triggering a cascade of effects that will amplify global warming and could destabilize the global climate system.

How Climate Change Could Jam
The World's Ocean Circulation

by nicola jones
Scientists are closely monitoring a key current in the North Atlantic to see if rising sea temperatures and increased freshwater from melting ice are altering the “ocean conveyor belt” — a vast oceanic stream that plays a major role in the global climate system.

Wildlife Farming: Does It Help
Or Hurt Threatened Species?

by richard conniff
Wildlife farming is being touted as a way to protect endangered species while providing food and boosting incomes in rural areas. But some conservation scientists argue that such practices fail to benefit beleaguered wildlife.

What Would a Global Warming
Increase of 1.5 Degrees Be Like?

by fred pearce
The Paris climate conference set the ambitious goal of finding ways to limit global warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius, rather than the previous threshold of 2 degrees. But what would be the difference between a 1.5 and 2 degree world? And how realistic is such a target?

After Paris, A Move to Rein In
Emissions by Ships and Planes

by fred pearce
As the world moves to slash CO2 emissions, the shipping and aviation sectors have managed to remain on the sidelines. But the pressure is now on these two major polluting industries to start controlling their emissions at last.

Abrupt Sea Level Rise Looms
As Increasingly Realistic Threat

by nicola jones
Ninety-nine percent of the planet's freshwater ice is locked up in the Antarctic and Greenland ice caps. Now, a growing number of studies are raising the possibility that as those ice sheets melt, sea levels could rise by six feet this century, and far higher in the next, flooding many of the world's populated coastal areas.

How Nations Are Chipping
Away at Their Protected Lands

by richard conniff
Winning protected status for key natural areas and habitat has long been seen as the gold standard of conservation. But these gains are increasingly being compromised as governments redraw park boundaries to accommodate mining, logging, and other development.

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A look at how acidifying oceans could threaten the Dungeness crab, one of the most valuable fisheries on the U.S. West Coast.
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An aerial view of why Europe’s per capita carbon emissions are less than 50 percent of those in the U.S.
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An indigenous tribe’s deadly fight to save its ancestral land in the Amazon rainforest from logging.
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Residents of the Chocó Rainforest in Ecuador are choosing to plant cacao over logging in an effort to slow deforestation.
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Tribal people and ranchers join together to stop a project that would haul coal across their Montana land.
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