Boone Pickens’ plan to massively expand wind production to free up more natural gas for vehicles is an audacious suggestion but it faces a key challenge rooted in natural gas’ virtue as a clean and versatile fuel for utilities to generate electricity.
Some analysts suggested that the plan, which was formally announced Tuesday by the oilman-turned-wind entrepreneur, was flawed by dubious assumptions about natural gas remaining cheap, and that while well meaning, the plan was also ultimately self-serving.
“I don’t think this is a viable plan,” said Clay Perry, of the Electric Power Research Institute, whose members generate 90 percent of the country’s electricity.
Underestimating Natural Gas
One key virtue of natural gas power plants is the critical ability to supply ‘peaking capacity’ —electricity needed to quickly meet surges in demand, such as air-conditioning use in the summer time, he explained. Wind -- along with coal and nuclear power -- has no such capability. It is also an intermittent energy source, although this shortcoming could be mitigated by future advances in battery storage technology.
“That’s going to be an issue if you are going to try to supplant natural gas with wind, which is a variable fuel, and which is not yet been the kind of thing you can count on as a base load generation option,” added James Owen, a spokesman for the Edison Electric Institute, another leading utility organization.
In fact, rather than reducing its use of natural gas, as Pickens suggests, utilities are set to use even more in the future, in good part because it is significantly cleaner than other fuels (especially coal), for both conventional pollutants and greenhouse gases.
That’s a key reason natural gas use has spiked significantly in recent years, even though it is more expensive than coal. In 1993 it contributed 13 percent of the country’s electricity; today it accounts for about 20 percent.
“In the next five to ten years, more and more gas is going to be used for electricity,” says Owen.
Pickens' plan also raises more basic questions, say critics. They include his assumption that natural gas would remain cheap and the contention that it could be indefinitely be sourced, primarily from domestic sources and hence save the US hundreds of billions of dollars in imports.
“This plan strikes me as a huge leap of faith that rests on some dubious assumptions,” especially on price, says John DeCicco, a senior fellow with Environmental Defense, a leading nongovernmental group that works with corporations on environmental initiatives.