The Pickens Plan

THE PICKENS PLAN….So T. Boone Pickens has an energy plan he wants to sell us. The basic idea is simple: Build a bunch of windmills in Texas to generate electricity, and then use the electricity to power electric cars. Voila! Energy independence!

No, wait. That’s not it at all. What Pickens actually wants to do is use the windmills to replace the electricity from existing power plants that run on natural gas. Then we can use the natural gas to run our cars.

Hmmm. That’s a bit of a kludge, isn’t it? Why do it that way? Is it really easier to build a massive infrastructure for fueling NG cars than it is to build an infrastructure for electric cars? And who’s going to force all those gas-fired power plants to shut down anyway?

Well, as near as I can tell, here’s the story. Pickens wants to build his electricity transmission facilities on a strip of land 250 feet wide and 250 miles long that starts at his farm in Roberts County, Texas, and terminates in Dallas. Why that particular strip? Because Pickens has been buying up massive water rights from the Ogallala Aquifer and he wants to pipe that water to Dallas at huge profit. Unfortunately, pipeline right-of-way is pretty hard to acquire, so Pickens figured out a way to get some help: he formed a little water district headed by his wife and a friend and then convinced the Texas legislature that water plus wind electricity was a good reason to use its power of eminent domain to hand over the land to him for a song. Wind power wasn’t really the motivation for this land snatch, it was just a sweetener for a water deal.

Clever — and typically Texan, no? Still, why not just sell the electricity? Why the natural gas switcheroo? Turns out Pickens has a vested interest there too:

Along with being the country’s biggest wind power developer, Pickens owns Clean Energy Fuels Corp., a natural gas fueling station company that is the sole backer of the stealthy Proposition 10 on California’s November ballot.

….But a closer read finds a laundry list of cash grabs — from $200 million for a liquefied natural gas terminal to $2.5 billion for rebates of up to $50,000 for each natural gas vehicle. Much of the measure’s billions could benefit Pickens’ company to the exclusion of almost all other clean-vehicle fuels and technology.

So the windmills are an excuse to condemn land for a water pipeline, and the natural gas piece of the plan benefits Pickens’ NG fueling station company. And while natural gas burns cleaner than oil, it’s still a fossil fuel that’s found mostly in Russia and the Middle East. Increasing our dependence on gas does little in the long term to promote energy independence.

Now, generally speaking, I don’t have any problem with people making money from clean energy. That’s how we’re going to get more of it, after all. But between his water-fueled eminent domain land grab in Texas and his support for a $5 billion bond measure in California, Pickens sure is using a lot of government dough to benefit himself. Something tells me there must be a better way to promote wind power than this.