Can the New Pickens Plan be Beaten?

The biggest threat to renewable energy’s growth for 2011 is the new Pickens Plan.

You may remember the original plan as being very much on the renewable energy industry’s side. It was based on building vast wind farms across West Texas  and running new power lines to get that juice to market.

Well, partly because of political opposition (from Texans worried about those power lines) and mainly because of technical and financial difficulties, wind is now out. The new plan is all about natural gas, specifically from shale, converting truck fleets to compressed natural gas (through a company Pickens owns) and putting lots of government money into that resource search.

The Department of Energy seems to be behind him. The latest forecast from the Energy Information Administration suggests good times for shale gas, saying technology has suddenly doubled reserves. Their 25-year forecast predicts that non-hydro renewables will jump from 1% of electricity supply to 14% in 2035.

The EIA’s main electricity page tells the story in a single number: 344,553. That’s America’s net electricity generation for September 10 of this year. The number is measured in thousands of megawatt hours.

California’s solar energy production was 104 megawatt-hours of electricity in June. That’s still a tiny fraction of overall supply.

So what if supply doubles in 2011? Now you’re at .2. Double it again in 2012. You’re at .4. You don’t get taken seriously until you can double that number another 8 times, which is why California’s goal of getting one-third of its energy from renewables is dated for 2020. A bid to scale back those plans, backed by oil companies, was beaten at the polls last month 59-41 but could easily come back in another form. When we say the cost line between electricity from natural gas and from renewables crosses in 2020 it looks a long way off.

In that kind of environment, someone like Pickens gets heard while you don’t. Besides, he has a back-up plan.

He’s talking about fueling cars with natural gas, not just the grid.

But here’s the threat. Subsidies to Pickens could greatly expand the supply of shale gas, keeping natural gas prices low and delaying the price-crossover we need to make renewables take off – especially if we help out by reducing demand through efficiency. Besides, you know how they get shale gas? They drill a well into an underground formation and turn that drill bit so it goes laterally across the formation. Then they fracture the formation – turning it into pebbles.

Fracturing, either with air or water, is opening the entire U.S. oilpatch to new exploitation. It can also destroy water tables. Methane can leak from the resulting formation. As a greenhouse gas, methane is 100 times worse than carbon dioxide, and methane leaks in Russia are already said to be accelerating global warming.

This is what T. Boone Pickens calls a “clean energy future.”

So, as an environmentalist, T. Boone Pickens is a fraud, but because of the numbers he’s talking about, he’s getting a hearing and you’re not. The result could be not only environmental disaster, but a decade of low natural gas prices that dramatically cuts the amount of capital available to renewable projects.

He needs to be stopped.

But how?

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Dana Blankenhorn has covered business and technology since 1978. He covered the Houston oil boom of the 1970s, began making his living online in 1985, and launched the Interactive Age Daily, the first daily coverage of e-commerce, in 1994. He has written for a host of off-line and online publications including The Chicago Tribune, Advertising Age, and ZDNet. He has covered PCs, networks, telecommunications, cable technology, Internet commerce, the Internet of Things, Open Source and Health IT, He began covering alternative energy at his personal blog,, in 2007.

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