Monday, August 4, 2008

An Oilman's Conversion

I never thought I'd see a lifelong oilman become a convert to renewable energy.

But then about three weeks ago, I was watching ABC News, and a commercial came on featuring T. Boone Pickens.

Pickens tells us he's a Texas oilman who has drilled for oil and gas his whole life and made a bushel of money in the business. He tells us America's dependence on oil and gas has made us dependent on others and weakened our standing to the point that it jeopardizes our national security. He tells us we have to stop.

Then he tells us America's future is not in oil. It's in alternative energy, such as the wind.

Well, I'll be. You know the push for renewable energy is getting some traction when an old industry stalwart like Pickens is talking it up. Granted, Pickens has his reasons, and one big chunk is financial: He's set to build the largest wind farm in north Texas. His plan envisions stringing wind farms up the spine of the United States, from Texas to the Dakotas.

No matter his profit motives, I applaud him for stepping forward and telling us what we need to hear. The days of cheap energy are over. Oil and gas are commodities, and finite ones at that. They're getting scarcer, and the reserves known to exist are more challenging to extract. Yes, there may be abundant reserves beneath the Arctic Ocean and even off Antarctica, but the world's demand for oil is growing far faster than these reserves can be tapped and would yield.

So, Pickens's idea is a good one. Renewable energy is a ticket to a more sustainable, and secure, energy supply. But his plan does have one big hitch: It's impractical.

What I mean is if you're going to go for wind, it doesn't make sense to plant fields of turbines hundreds, thousands of miles from the nation's urban centers. You then have to build the infrastructure to send those electrons to where the people live. And even if you build the infrastructure, you still lose energy as it travels from source to customer. The longer the distance, the more energy is lost in transit.

But you can have the wind if you build the turbines offshore. They'd be close to the major urban centers, and they run more efficiently than land-based wind farms, because there is less friction with wind traveling over water than on land. Also, you can build bigger, taller turbines, which can capture more wind and achieve higher economies of scale. I devoted my master's thesis to one project, called Cape Wind, which is a plan to build the nation's first offshore wind farm off Cape Cod. If it goes, I think you'll see more turbines erected in shallow offshore areas. Moreover, we're in the cusp of knowing how to put those turbines further out to sea, which would appease those who oppose wind farms because they don't want to look at them.

So, let's give Pickens a tip of the hat for getting the debate started. And let's hope our nation's next president advances it.

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