You've probably seen the commercials: Legendary Texas oilman T. Boone Pickens touting his wind energy plan for America; Chesapeake Energy Corp.'s Aubrey McClendon chiming in, saying natural gas supplies (a key part of Pickens' plan) will be abundant in the future; the oil and gas industry assuring supply is there if they are allowed into drill; and nonprofits urging viewers to let their representatives know where they stand on alternative energy issues.
High gasoline prices, global warming concerns and fears that fossil fuel resources are likely nearing peak supply while global demand is surging have driven energy to near the top of the national debate.
No one has become more emblematic of the current energy discussion than Pickens, known for his prominence in business and oil industry circles (as well as for his role in the "Swift-boating" of Sen. John Kerry in the last presidential campaign).
His plan, which he is taking to the American people in the form of some $58 million in television spots and other marketing efforts, calls for bumping wind energy's contribution to the country's electrical total to 20 percent — roughly the amount lost when, in the second and more controversial part of this plan, compressed natural gas, or CNG, is taken out of the electrical equation and used to power cars and trucks.
His idea, as well the Solar Grand Plan, previously discussed here, and Al Gore's plan, which calls for renewable energy sources supplying all of the nation's electricity with a zero carbon footprint within 10 years, are based on some raw assumptions that no doubt will be challenged by basic practicalities and as-yet-unknown roadblocks.
Longtime advocates of wind, solar and other renewable energies have welcomed Pickens' entry into the debate. However, many see his plan as a glass half full. Some like his idea of harnessing wind energy over a wide swath of the center of the country and that he's funding construction a 4,000-megawatt wind farm in West Texas but don't agree that natural gas is the best way to power automobiles.
A Bridge or a Roadblock?
In a recent paper, Lester Brown, director of the Energy Policy Institute, wrote that "part two of Pickens' plan — to move natural gas out of electricity production and use it to fuel cars instead — just doesn't make sense."
He argues that plug-in electric cars are nearly ready for market and that wind energy, the fastest-growing energy source in the country, is positioned to provide electricity to power the cars. The price of natural gas is on its way up, he says, while costs of wind-generated electricity are falling.
Pickens sees natural gas as a bridge to an energy mix that will be largely renewable, but others, like Brown and Nobel laureate Gore, don't see the need for a bridge.
In a recent appearance on NBC's Meet the Press, Gore noted, "There are vehicles running today on natural gas. Chattanooga, Tennessee, has natural gas buses. It's a respectable option. But I think that in the long term the better approach is to make this investment in a unified national grid that has low losses in transmission ... and shift over to renewable resources."
A central element in these plans, all of which call for a significantly bigger slice of the energy pie coming from electricity, is the construction of high-voltage transmission lines to connect a more diffuse system of suppliers to users. As Gore alluded to, the current "grid" wasn't built to be a grid at all; instead, it's a collection of regional or local power lines that can't really handle routine interstate transmission of massive amounts of electricity.
James Mason, an author of the Grand Solar Plan mentioned earlier, is an economist who focuses on crunching energy numbers. He likes Pickens' approach to wind energy development but sees a problem: There will be little reduction in carbon dioxide emissions in using CNG for vehicles. His figures show that only about 59 percent of the light-duty vehicles (four-wheel, single-axle cars, SUVs and trucks) in the country could be powered with the amount of natural gas that would be available. (See his and Bill Bailey's look at the coming oil supply crisis here.)
Another hitch is that wind power is intermittent energy that requires a backup (unless energy storage is built into the system); backup power is usually supplied by natural gas power plants.
He believes the problem with Pickens' plan "as well as most other energy plans being presented is that they fail to take into account the sheer enormity of the U.S. energy system."
When closely evaluated, Mason says, "they end up being only piecemeal attempts at a solution with huge gaps." What needs to be taken into consideration, he says, are compressed air energy storage to address the intermittent nature of wind and solar and a national high-voltage direct current (HVDC) electrical transmission system.
A Role for CNG
Mason does agree with the Pickens' idea of using CNG as a bridge — to cars powered by hydrogen fuel cells. Use of CNG will require a new system of delivery and pumping stations to refuel vehicles; those systems, he says, can be easily converted to deliver compressed hydrogen. Honda is making an electric hydrogen fuel cell car called the Clarity.
It faces the same roadblocks faced by CNG-powered cars: availability of fueling stations. And to offer CNG or compressed hydrogen to motorists, a service station first needs to have a pipeline for delivery and would have to install new fuel pumps.
One thing is certain with any plan: Infrastructure to support massive changes in energy supply, fueling and transmission will not come cheap.
Electric cars covering large distances will need to recharge along the way. Electric-car proponents say the infrastructure is in place nationwide for their autos and adapting stations for electrical recharging would be an easy retrofit. And, they say, although CNG is a cleaner-burning fuel than gasoline, it does not get much better mileage and burning it results in only a 20 percent reduction in greenhouse-gas emissions.
General Motors, with its plug-in gas/electric hybrid Chevy Volt, and Toyota, with its plug-in Prius, plan to have their "charges" on showroom floors by 2010. Ford and Nissan also have plug-in hybrids in the pipeline.
The Honda Civic GX is the only U.S.-made car that runs on CNG at this time, although both Ford and General Motors currently manufacture CNG vehicles for the international market, and some Americans are converting vehicles to run on CNG.
On CNG's plus side, a homeowner tied into a natural gas line for home use could tap it for CNG at night (after investing in a refueling kit). And compressed hydrogen could be available for refueling at home as well.
The Clarity's Web site notes that Honda researchers are looking at ways to "create a home energy system that heats water for the home, produces hydrogen fuel for a fuel cell vehicle and sources the electricity to power everyday appliances." The other "plus" for a hydrogen-powered car is that the only tailpipe emission is water. A negative is that natural gas is likely needed for production of compressed hydrogen.
Although cleaner than gasoline as a fuel, natural gas is still a fossil fuel and a contributor to global warming. And, like oil, it's a finite resource. Currently, the United States imports about one-sixth of its natural gas. The U.S. Energy Information Administration's Annual Energy Outlook 2008 projects that high prices for natural gas will stimulate the development of new supplies and constrain growth in consumption through 2016, when prices are likely to increase.
Mason's predictions also show U.S. natural gas supply decreasing, beginning around 2014, with a likely sharp increase in price. Plus, the EIA report notes that "international market conditions" will cause "greater uncertainty in future U.S. natural gas prices." Sound familiar?
The end of natural gas is far away, says McClendon, chairman and CEO of Chesapeake Energy, centered in Oklahoma City. The company, which claims to be the nation's largest gas producer and most active driller, is taking a page out of Pickens' book with its own public campaign and Web site.
In a recent press release, McClendon claims "new technologies in natural gas shale basins ... have provided new evidence that our country has ample natural gas supplies to power America's economy for more than a century."
In this very theoretical discussion regarding CNG, hybrid plug-ins or electric fuel cell power, the possibility of increasing wind's share of the electrical grid from 2 to 20 percent in a couple decades is hardly questioned. That might indicate the grandness —and perhaps quixotic reaches of all of these ideas — and the enormous scope of the problems they seek to address.
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