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T Boone Pickens in the Wind

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By mklein9
July 16, 2008

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T Boone was all over the news last night with his new energy plan.

I always find it astounding when people, even well-known people, come up with a couple of ideas like this and say they've solved the whole issue. Nothing could be further from the case. The magnitude of the energy problem as a whole is *SO HUGE* that Pickens' plan barely scratches the surface. It's not a bad idea for a couple of drops in the bucket, but that's about it.

Specifically, Pickens relies on basically two major assumptions:

1) If we "only" capture 20% of the earth's wind power, we can provide 7 times the world's electricity demand. Can anyone imagine how we could get anywhere close to capturing 20% of the entire globe's wind? We would have to blanket the entire globe -- oceans as well -- with high efficiency windmills. How much would that cost? How long would it take? How many would be broken at one time? How is it transported to areas where wind power is not favorable? And after all that, it only provides for electricity, not fuels. This border on stupidity, really.

2) According to the California Energy Commission, critical greenhouse gas emissions from natural gas are 23% lower than diesel and 30% lower than gasoline. What we need are emissions that are 1/10 or less of diesel and gasoline, because in order to produce a meaningful reduction in greenhouse gases we have to produce a lot less than we are now, averaged over all energy production and use -- and at the same time as our economies worldwide are increasing their energy demands. Natural gas is a very small, limited advance over gas and diesel, not a solution.

In addition, looking just at the US is severely myopic since the majority of all energy use is outside the US, along with the pollution and economic stresses and all else that goes along with that. We cannot ignore the rest of the world because their energy production methods affect us as well.

In my view, Pickens' plan is yet another in a long line of short-sighted ideas that likely has personal gain as top priority. Or, maybe in this case, Texas' gain. His plan is no more than a distraction in my mind, as are most plans I've ever heard.


Now for some more useful and positive info.....

First and most importantly, to have an intelligent conversation about energy, the size of the problem must be understood. This is actually really difficult. The world's energy use today is about 13 terawatts -- 13 with 12 zeros after it. That is equivalent to about 13,000 nuclear reactors running full tilt. It is really hard to conceptualize this. Most energy ideas floating around today address less than 1% of this. Hybrid cars, if they were to become universal overnight, would address maybe 5% at best, but right now they are way, way under 1%.

The *ONLY* source of energy that has the potential to address the world's energy need is solar. Not today's solar cells (they're far too expensive but improving) but the capturing of solar energy and direct conversion to both electricity and a transportable fuel to replace gasoline and diesel. The reason is really simple. The amount of solar energy reaching the earth's surface is well over 1000 times as much as our total energy need now or 50 or 100 years from now; even after cutting that way down for practical implementations (such as only building on a small fraction of land, and 10% conversion efficiency) it's still at least double our needs for the next 50-100 years -- not just electrical energy needs, but total energy needs of all forms.

*None* of the other sources of energy come anywhere, even remotely, close to meeting our needs as solar does. Other forms of energy production can have niche applications here and there for special situations, but no other form addresses the entirety of our energy needs with clean energy production and use.

Here's an excellent talk, and very much worth an hour of your time to get some perspective (and which has data on the electric potential of wind for reference:

http://today.caltech.edu/theater/8424_cable.ram

Note that there is a slide showing the potential for wind electricity generation. The best place to locate wind farms is in North Dakota and there are no practical places anywhere in the eastern half of the US at all. How does that solve a broad energy problem?

-Mike