One year ago to the day, T. Boone Pickens presented his eponymous plan to cure America's dangerous dependence on foreign oil. The media blitz was impressive, but have Pickens' ideas made a lasting impact on the way our country is addressing energy security matters?
Wind power, one of the pillars of the plan, certainly seems to be one of the most politically favored alternatives, with or without the Pickens push. In April, Energy Secretary Steven Chu identified wind energy as "one of the most important contributors to meeting President Obama's target of generating 10 percent of our electricity from renewable sources by 2012." There's a decent chunk of change earmarked for wind power in the federal stimulus plan, and the House energy and climate bill paved the way for a national renewable electricity standard, which would push more utilities to embrace wind projects.
That said, the wind isn't entirely at this renewable power source's back. As we've seen with First Solar (Nasdaq: FSLR ) , SunPower (Nasdaq: SPWRA ) , and the rest of the photovoltaic crowd, financing for clean energy projects has become strained as credit markets have tightened. The commodities collapse, which has brought down the cost of conventional electricity alongside natural gas prices, also challenges the economics of new wind installations.
Another stumbling block, which I touched on in our recent roundtable on the House energy bill, is transmission. Without extra high-voltage power lines stretching from windy regions to urban demand centers, wind power can't flourish. That's a key reason to keep an eye on infrastructure players like Quanta Services (NYSE: PWR ) , EMCOR Group, and ITC Holdings (NYSE: ITC ) . The last company, with its proposed Green Power Express line, is the purest play on transmission of them all. The stock ain't cheap, though, with valuation multiples more reminiscent of Google (Nasdaq: GOOG ) than of Duke Energy (NYSE: DUK ) .
Transmission capacity, as it turns out, is proving to be the prime sticking point in Pickens' own proposed giant wind project in Pampa, Texas. The state's putting in $5 billion worth of new transmission lines, but they won't run close enough to Pickens' site in the Texas Panhandle. With one gigawatt of turbines on the way from General Electric (NYSE: GE ) , Pickens is still planning on installing plenty of wind power -- just not in the place he originally had planned.
As for the other prong of the Pickens Plan -- shifting our natural gas supplies from electricity generation to powering our vehicles -- I see far less momentum. Both next-generation biofuels and plug-in hybrid electric vehicles appear to have captured more mindshare. Warren Buffett, for example, is on board with the plug-in vehicles, through his investment in China's BYD. I'm also quite keen on diversifying our auto fleet away from a single source, whether it's a hydrocarbon, algae, or an ear of corn. Feedstock-agnostic electricity seems like the ticket to me. Wind, natural gas, nuclear, and other sources can all kick in.