18 July 2008
AMERICANS spend $700 billion a year on foreign oil. According to one observer, this is an addiction, a crisis, and a trap. The country must pursue alternative energy sources as fiercely as it once shot for the moon. So far, so much liberal boilerplate. The critic in question, however, is a Republican oilman: T. Boone Pickens. As he puts it, in an Okie drawl: “I’ve been an oilman all my life. But this is one emergency we can’t drill our way out of.” He wants America to make a huge investment in wind-power infrastructure. During this election season, he will personally spend $58m to make the case.
Mr Pickens’s interest is not solely altruistic. His company, Mesa Power, has already invested $2 billion to build the world’s largest wind farm in Pampa, a small town in the Texas panhandle. He told a Senate committee in June that he is going to pay for the transmission lines that will carry Pampa’s power to the Dallas area because he cannot wait for the state to build the infrastructure. As he likes to point out, he is 80 years old and worth $4 billion. So profit is not the only issue, either.
A report from the Department of Energy said in May that America could build enough wind farms to provide 20% of the nation’s electricity by 2030. The Pickens plan calls for America to meet this goal by building wind farms throughout the windy corridor that runs up the country from Texas to the Dakotas. It would cost $1 trillion to build them, plus another $200 billion to connect them to places where the power is most needed, which lie inconveniently far away from the corridor.
That is a staggering outlay, but it would free up American natural gas, which now generates 22% of the country’s electricity, to be used for motor vehicles. The idea is that Americans could switch en masse to natural gas vehicles, and the country could stop importing so much oil.
As a bonus, says Mr Pickens, the industry would create jobs and revitalise rural America. He points to the west Texas town of Sweetwater to prove his point. Ten years ago it was just one more struggling speck on the prairie. Its only excitement was an annual rattlesnake round-up. Then the wind industry started to take hold in west Texas and the panhandle. Locals initially fretted that the turbines would be too noisy. They also worried that they would mar the vast horizon. Other west Texans are less enamoured of the original view. “The landscape is an eyesore,” counters a man from Groom.
In any case, the turbines look nicer as the benefits accrue. In 1999 the state’s wind power capacity was just 180 megawatts. Today Texas leads the nation with almost 5,000. Most of that is concentrated in the north-western quarter of the state. The economic impact on Nolan County, which encompasses Sweetwater, will be $315m this year. Wind has brought more than 1,000 new jobs to town.
This boomlet has made an impression on Texans. Wind power accounts for 3% of the state’s electricity, compared with 1% nationwide. But the tax credit that has been driving its growth is about to expire. And then there is the question of the creaking grid. The state is mulling a plan that would enable the transmission of 17,000 additional megawatts at a cost of $6.4 billion.
Building wind power capacity will not be an easy task. But there is an emerging agreement in Texas that it is worth the trouble. That is where Mr Pickens can make a difference. His plan is undeniably quirky. Its emphasis on natural gas is strange, for one thing: America does not have many natural gas vehicles. But if Mr Pickens wants to use his own fortune to sell the general public on the idea of wind power, that is all to the good. No one can accuse him of being a soft-headed tree-hugger.
From The Economist