Pickens’ Hot Air

The NYT editorial board is all aquiver over T. Boone Pickens’ plan to increase wind-generated electricity in the United States. A Times editorial gushes:

[Pickens would] develop wind power in states with steady, forceful winds (like Texas) and use it instead of natural gas to produce electricity (natural gas now generates about one-fifth of the power in the United States). He would then use the natural gas saved to fuel cars and trucks. He predicts that oil imports would drop by 40 percent and the country would save $300 billion a year.

Just one problem: Increased wind power may not free up that much natural gas.

Nat gas–fired generation has some important characteristics: Turbine generator nat gas plants are relatively cheap and quick to build, but they can be expensive to operate because the fuel is pricey. The plants can be put into service (“dispatched”) and taken out quickly with little start-up cost. Moreover, nat gas turbine plants can be very small (some are the size of a tractor-trailer) and emit little pollution relative to coal-fired plants, so they can be sited close to (and in) areas of heavy electricity demand.

Given its profile, nat gas generation is often used for “peak” production — that is, used for periods when demand is great and must be satisfied immediately (e.g., hot summer days when air conditioners are running full-blast, “work hours” when factories and offices are consuming a lot of juice) as well as to address localized power problems (e.g., areas that are at risk of brown-outs). This contrasts with coal-, nuclear-, and hydro-powered plants that are expensive to build but relatively cheap to run, that are difficult to idle and to site, and that are used, accordingly, to provide “baseline” power to large areas. (I should note, in charity to Pickens, that nat gas “co-gen” plants are also used as part of the baseline supply.)

Wind-powered generation is an intermittent source of electricity that may not be available during periods of peak demand. Its product, as envisioned by Pickens, would have to be transported over great distances on the nation’s overly-congested power grid — from the “wind-swept plains” to population and manufacturing centers — in order for it to satisfy much of the nation’s energy demand. Thus, it’s unclear how wind-powered electricity can effectively displace much of the 20 percent of U.S. electricity that is currently produced by natural gas. (In contrast, all renewables, combined, produce about 2.4 percent of U.S. electricity.)

If anything, wind-powered generation seems better suited to replace some coal-fired generation (especially in Texas where Pickens is building a $10 billion wind farm and where coal is often the marginal source of power). But since coal isn’t a transportation fuel, this displacement wouldn’t reduce the nation’s dependence on oil — unless there’s a breakthrough in battery technology that would make electric cars more practical. Moreover, if the nation does increase its dependence on wind power, then we would likely have to increase our dependence on nat gas peakers to cover those days when wind isn’t available (which often are those hot days when air conditioners are cranked up).

This is not to say that wind-powered generation should be ignored. The United States will likely overcome its current energy woes through a mixture of technology advances and conservation efforts, and wind may be part of that mix. But Pickens’ claim that wind power could be used to displace 40 percent of U.S. transportation fuel seems like little more than hot air.