Pickens Plan a "Herculean effort that simply may not be achievable": Vaclav Smil

photo by Laura via flickr

It's been about two months since T. Boone Pickens unveiled The Pickens Plan to wean the United States off foreign oil imports and transition our energy infrastructure towards more wind power for electricity and more natural gas for transportation. The back and forth debate on the feasibility of Pickens' proposal has died down a bit since then, but still more questions remain than answers.

Yale Environment 360 is currently running "A Reality Check on the Pickens Energy Plan" by University of Manitoba professor Vaclav Smil in which he breaks down the challenges facing The Pickens Plan. Here are just some of hurdles which Smil says would need to be cleared:"Financial hurdles are daunting"

...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.

Number of Wind Turbines Needed "Highly Optimistic"
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.

Reducing Oil Imports by One-Third Still Leaves U.S. on Shaky Economic Ground
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.

via :: Yale Environment 360
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Tags: Electricity | Renewable Energy | Transportation | United States | Wind Power