T. Boone Pickens is holding his “virtual march on Washington” today with the millions of his army emailing their Congressional representatives about the Pickens Plan.
The Plan, as I’m sure you know, goes like this: We’ll put up lots and lots of windmills, beginning with Pickens’ own contributions in West Texas. That will replace the 20 percent of our electricity that is produced with natural gas. Then that “wedge” of gas will be picked up like a piece of pie and moved over to the transport sector, where it will power our cars. That will enable us to reduce a big chunk of our imported oil.
Sounds plausible, right? According to the video on his site, Pickens is drawing huge, enthusiastic crowds around the country and hobnobbing with the likes of Al Gore, Bill Clinton, President Barack Obama, and Steven Chu. “I was sitting between two Nobel Prize Winners the other night,” he says at one point. He’s a sweet, well-meaning guy — the “Texan of the Year” in 2009 — but unfortunately he’s marching in the wrong direction. If the Pickens Plan were put in place tomorrow, we’d be much worse off than we are now.
Here’s the reason. Wind is an intermittent source of energy. It comes and goes unpredictably. You can’t do that with an electrical grid. The voltage balances must be maintained within about a 5 percent margin or you run into all kinds of trouble — either power lapses and brownouts or power “surges” that can damage electrical equipment. (That’s why you have a “surge protector” between your wall outlet and your computer.)
Both solar and wind come and go unpredictably but wind is far worse. The sun at least has a diurnal pattern. You can predict where it will be at any time of day (though predicting the clouds it often hides behind remains a problem).
Wind is always a problem. It comes and goes with the wind, as they say. Moreover, the electrical output of a windmill varies with the cube of wind speed, so that magnifies the problem. All this can be masked as long as wind’s contribution remains small, but most engineers say you can’t go above 20 percent with current technology. Denmark claims 20 percent windmill capacity (a big difference from output) and on average seems to get about 13-15 percent of its electricity from wind — but it has stopped building windmills altogether. They created too many problems on the Danish grid.
Now, here’s the rub. There is one way that windmills can be integrated onto the grid. That is to pair them with natural gas turbines. Gas turbines are different from ordinary electrical boilers in that they do not produce steam to turn the turbines. The exhaust gases drive the turbines directly. That gives them a big advantage in following load. They can be started, stopped, and adjusted almost instantly. With a coal plant or a gas boiler, on the other hand, it may take 45 minutes before they can get up to speed.
Gas turbines have mostly been used to this point to meet the “peak” demands that occur on hot summer afternoons. Utilities find it far too expensive to build major generators that may be used only a few weeks of the year. So they install gas turbines — essentially jet engines bolted to the ground — which are cheap to build but very expensive to operate because fuel is the major cost. That’s why, although natural gas constitutes 39 percent of our electrical generating capacity, it only provides 20 percent of our electricity — because the plants are only used when absolutely necessary.
Now if we start installing lots of windmills, it can only mean that we’re going to start installing and using a lot more gas turbines, as well. They’ll run right alongside the windmills, starting and stopping to compensate for the wind’s fluctuations. The major turbine manufacturers — General Electric, Siemens, and Toshiba — are already redesigning their turbines and advertising them as “the ideal companion for wind.” The Department of Energy’s 2006 study, “20% Wind by 2030,” which originally inspired Pickens, estimates half the nation’s current gas consumption will be needed to supplement wind but it will probably be much more. California, which leads the nation in becoming “clean and green,” now gets 40 percent of its electricity from natural gas — twice the national average.
If our pursuit of a “renewable America” has the same result as it has in California, it will be a national disaster. Our consumption of gas for electricity went from zero to 20 percent between 1990 and 2000. Then it hit the wall, causing a six-fold run-up in price — bigger than the oil run-up during the Arab Oil Embargo. The result was 100,000 lost jobs in the chemical and fertilizer industries, which use gas as a feedstock and moved abroad to be closer to cheap supplies. If employing more gas to compensate for wind causes another price run-up, there isn’t going to be much left of industrial America.
There is only one energy source that can replace gas in the way Pickens wants to do and that’s nuclear power. If Pickens had real nerve, he’d become the biggest advocate of the nation’s nuclear revival. But then he wouldn’t get to sit down with Bill Clinton and Al Gore.
And so the Pickens’ Army will continue its aimless march on Washington, confusing even more the muddle that already prevails there today. Despite his good intentions, he’s wasting a huge opportunity to rescue the American economy.
– William Tucker is author of Terrestrial Energy: How Nuclear Power Will Lead the Green Revolution and End America’s Energy Odyssey.