Pickens Plan in a pickle
Clean-energy investments have dried up during the recession, threatening the former oilman's plans for a wind-powered renaissance. But he isn't giving up yet.
Wed, Jul 29, 2009 at 05:21 AM
In July 2008, amid soaring gasoline prices, oil tycoon T. Boone Pickens began his glitzy $60 million advertising campaign to persuade Americans to break their reliance on foreign oil. His plan involves ramping up renewable energy investments to generate 22 percent of the country's electricity from wind, and using America's natural gas to replace imported oil as a transportation fuel.
To blaze the trail, Pickens announced the construction of the world's largest wind farm near Pampa, Texas, and bought 687 giant wind turbines worth $2 billion.
One year later, Pickens' prospects look bleaker. The credit crunch is in full effect, oil prices have plummeted to $65 per barrel, and the billionaire himself hasn't raised enough capital to build the transmission lines necessary for brining wind power from his secluded farm to the urban hotspots in need.
Many are left smirking at the irony of an oilman advocating for a sea change in energy policy and then backpedaling due to the lack of appropriate funds for transmission — the pivotal point of wind power's success, according to a Department of Energy report that targets 20 percent of U.S. electricity generation from wind by 2030.
Despite the bottleneck, however, Pickens says his plan is still a go.
"I am fully committed to wind energy and to developing wind projects in the U.S. and perhaps Canada," Pickens says, noting that he's currently seeking out smaller projects for his itinerant windmills. "I expect to continue development of the Pampa project, but not at the pace that I originally expected."
In Pickens' defense, Sierra Club spokesman Josh Dorner points out that the project's delay isn't a reflection of wind power's viability or of Pickens' commitment to his cause, but of the current economic crisis. "Lending has not returned to the level that gives economic vitality, especially in the clean energy sector," Dorner says.
In 2008, wind projects accounted for 42 percent of all new electric-generating capacity added in the country (most of the rest being natural gas), with 8,558 megawatts (MW) installed. According to the DOE, newly installed wind power is predicted to decrease by 4,400 MW to 6,800 MW in 2009.
One way to boost wind power's growth, Dorner says, is through the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009, a federal grant program through which the government will pay as much as 30 percent of the cost of renewable energy projects. The program is part of President Obama's stimulus package signed into law in February.
But if the government is truly dedicated to growing renewable energy, it needs to strengthen its energy policies, says Christine Real de Azua, assistant director of communications for the American Wind Energy Association.
"The good news is that the current climate and energy legislation includes a renewable electricity standard [requiring utilities to generate a certain percentage of their electricity from renewable energy sources]," she says. "However, the bad news is that the proposed standards are weak."
She's alluding to the climate and energy bill that recently passed through the House (Waxman-Markey American Clean Energy and Security Act — H.R. 2454, or "ACES"), requiring 15 percent of electricity production to come from renewable sources and 5 percent from energy efficiency.
Real de Azua says the target simply isn't enough to drive new renewable energy development, and hopes the standard will be strengthened when the Senate debates the bill.
"This is a big opportunity and we don't want to miss it," she says.
In other words, even though Pickens' plan is on the back burner, his vision is farsighted. As an energy businessman, Pickens looked at the maps, saw that a vibrant resource wasn't being tapped, and created a blueprint for changing the country's energy infrastructure.
"The opportunity is huge, and I think Mr. Pickens has eloquently put forth the case of what wind can do, such as supporting 20 percent of our electricity demand," Real de Azua says. "Now we need strong policies so that we can say America is clearly open for renewable energy business."
Perhaps then Pickens' plan, and wind power itself, won't be in such a pickle.