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No We Can't!

About two weeks ago, T. Boone Pickens unveiled a bold energy plan, a new website (www.pickensplan.com), and hired an online marketing company to help make it go viral. Frankly, I'm impressed. The plan isn't perfect, but it is really the first comprehensive plan put forth by someone with the authority and resources to get it done. In a nutshell, this video shows what Pickens wants to do:



Over the past two weeks, I've read a lot of criticisms and backlash to the Pickens Plan. I don't think the arguments are particularly good, but their existance demonstrates something important: even though almost everyone agrees that we need an alternative to the status quo, finding the plan that we can all agree on is going to be painfully difficult. We have adopted a "no we can't" attitude - rather than showing excitement about possible solutions to our energy problem, we have become pessimistic about anything less than the miracle solution. The criticisms of the Pickens Plan boil down to a few objections, which I desribe, followed by my responses:

Wind power is intermittent - the very nature of the wind is that it isn't necessarily a constant stream of air. Sometimes it blows faster, sometimes it blows slower; and therefore we don't want to risk rolling blackouts if we get caught on a particularly unwindy day. The reality is that wind energy will never be only only source of energy. Maybe one day it will produce 19% of the energy we use and the next day 21%, but the system will always have back up power sources. If wind energy can reduce the amount of energy we produce from non-renewable sources by a significant percent, it still seems worth it.

Natural gas power plants are 3x as efficient as natural gas vehicles - if we eliminate all of the natural gas currently used for electricity production, we will need 3x as much of it to produce the same amount of energy in vehicles. The reality is that conservation is the most reasonable solution to the vehicle efficiency problem. How do we reduce the amount of energy used in vehicle consumption? Drive less. Unfortunately, that is a bad sales pitch when trying to sell this idea to sturbborn, suburb-obsessed people who are terrified of change. Even if we switch to natural gas power vehicles, the cost of driving a mile won't be any different than it is today and it might even be more expensive. Of course, Pickens never said his plan would bring the cost of energy down, just that it would reduce our consumption of oil (and implicity cap prices from continuing to rise over time).

Pickens is a greedy capitalist and dirty Republican - a lot of people are rejecting the Pickens Plan simply because Pickens was the one who pitched it. Some say that Pickens is pushing the plan because he owns a natural gas company and is building a wind farm, and thus will profit greatly if his plan is implemented. Others point to the fact that Pickens lobbied hard against John Kerry in 2004 and has already conceded that he will vote for McCain in 2008. The motive fallacy is obvious here, and the author should be separated from the plan in order to fairly evaluate it.

There is an urgency problem when it comes to building at least wind and solar infrastructure. The marginal cost of producing electricity from wind and solar are currently higher than other sources of energy - that will not be true forever. The marginal cost of other sources of energy will continue to rise, but wind and solar will stay basically flat, since the "fuel" is essentially free. It is better to build the infrastructure now because it will be cheaper in today's dollars than it will be in tomorrow's dollars (this is especially true if you subscribe to the dollar collapse theory) and because you can't pop these things up overnight. If we wait until the energy crisis becomes truly crushing (it isn't now) then the pain will be longer and more drawn out. The first step is agreeing on a plan to get behind - Pickens Plan is good and since no one else seems to have one, it seems a good one to use as a rallying call. We need to abandon the "no we can't" attitude and understand that the miracle solution doesn't exist, then we can start making progress with energy.

Edit (9/6/08): Gal Luft has an article published in today's LA Times. Luft spends essentially the entire time blasting every aspect of the Pickens Plan. He concludes with this paragraph:

At a time of great public anxiety about our energy future, Congress should focus on policies that would grant Americans true energy independence, rather than replace one dependence with another. Instead, Democrats and Republicans in the House and the Senate have preferred to follow up on Pickens' plan with bills to increase the use of natural gas as a transportation fuel. Such initiatives would certainly be a boon for Pickens, but not for America.

Does Luft have any suggestions for how to accomplish what he's calling on congress to do? Of course not. Is anyone surprised?

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