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.
Compressed natural gas is safer than gasoline. Cars and trucks powered by natural gas don’t have the range or horsepower limits of electric and hybrid-electric vehicles, though natural gas powered vehicles have a little less of both than those powered by gasoline.
Someday we may have a battery for electric cars that produces satisfactory range and horsepower, and someday the cost of hydrogen fuel cell vehicles might not be astronomical (the five hydrogen cars Honda has leased to the City of Los Angeles cost $1.6 million each), but that someday isn’t going to be any day soon. In the meantime, as Mr. Pickens says, we need a bridge.
Honda sells a natural-gas powered version of its Civic for about $25,000; a hybrid-electric version for about $23,000. The gasoline powered Civic sedan sells for about $15,000. A $5,000 tax credit, coupled with savings on fuel, could make these alternative vehicles attractive to most car buyers.
A massive shift to natural gas powered vehicles would send demand for natural gas – and consequently its price – soaring. But this could be offset if Congress would permit us to develop the resources offshore and in Alaska, and if other fuels could be substituted for the 22 percent of our electricity that is generated by burning natural gas.
Mr. Pickens has the right idea, but the wrong fuel. A tenfold increase in wind power would meet only about 7 percent of our electricity needs. But nuclear power could both supply rising demand for electricity, and substitute for natural gas in its production.
By Jack Kelly
Jack Kelly, a syndicated columnist, is a former Marine and Green Beret and a former deputy assistant secretary of the Air Force in the Reagan administration. He is national security writer for the Pittsburgh (Pa.) Post-Gazette.
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What Eric Rosenbloom said (kirbymtn.blogspot.com | “20% wind by 2030”):
The U.S. Department of Energy, in a recent report sponsored by the wind industry, says that it is possible to achieve 20% wind “penetration” by 2030.
Accepting that possibility as valid (which it isn’t without massively increasing grid interconnection and excess non-wind capacity), what does that mean?
The Dept. of Energy estimates that electricity production will be 5,397 billion kilowatt-hours in 2030, or an average rate of 616,096 megawatts (MW). Twenty percent of that is 123,219 MW. With a capacity factor of 25% (the ratio of actual output to rated capacity), 492,877 MW of wind turbines would have to be installed.
There is currently about 20,000 MW of wind capacity installed in the U.S. (according to the American Wind Energy Association, 16,818 MW were installed by the end of 2007). So more than 470,000 MW more is needed, more than 21,000 MW a year, a rate of building more than four times that of 2007’s record breaker.
Each megawatt of wind turbine capacity needs at least 50 acres around it. An installed capacity of 500,000 MW needs 25 million acres, or 39,000 square miles. With the space requirements, and because the machines are huge (now pushing 500 feet in total height), visually intrusive, and noisy, most of them would be erected in previously undeveloped rural and wild areas, along with heavy-duty roads, transformers, and new high-capacity transmission lines.
And after 2030: then what? Electricity demand will continue to grow. If it grows 2% per year, then 10,000 MW – and more each year – of new wind turbines would have to be erected every year after 2030 to keep their nominal share at 20%.
But here’s the real futility: When the wind isn’t blowing, we’ll still need full-capacity backup generation – the grid has to be planned as if the wind plant isn’t even there, because quite often it won’t be, especially at periods of peak demand. In other words, there won’t be any less coal or nuclear, and probably a lot more natural gas (which is better suited to balancing the fluctuations of wind energy production).
The call for 20% wind by 2030 is for a colossal boondoggle that would drastically alter the landscape, adversely affect wildlife, and not significantly change anything for the better.
27 July 2008
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