- The Washington Times - Monday, July 28, 2008

ANALYSIS/OPINION:

COMMENTARY:

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.

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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