Boone Pickens finds dry hole in the wind

The Pickens Plan was always vulnerable to the math of electrical distribution.
Written by Dana Blankenhorn, Inactive on

The big economic question of today is when the recovery will begin, and what will it be based upon.

Some, like Robert Reich, are beginning to despair. When will the recovery begin? Never, he writes.

"Instead of asking when the recovery will start, we should be asking when and how the new economy will begin," he writes.

So when will the new economy begin, and what will it be based upon?

The obvious answer is alternative energy. There is a crying need for it. There is a ready market for it.

The problem is, how do you get it to market?

Failure to adequately answer that question may be why T. Boone Pickens has shelved his plans for a giant wind farm in Texas. He blames problems with financing and the recession.

Critics on the right are cheering, saying his plan was always a "boondoggle." Those on the left are dusting off their predictions of imminent planetary doom.

Pickens announced his plan in 2007, hoping that wind would power the electric grid, freeing natural gas to power cars.  But there was always a big hole in that plan, namely delivering the energy in a way compatible with the needs of buyers.

Buyers, in this case, are electric utilities. Their chief need is to deliver power to their customers -- you and me -- on command.

Wind can't do that. Wind delivers energy when the wind blows. Coal and gas plants can be turned on-and-off at will. Turn off a wind farm and you lose the resource.

The Pickens Plan was always vulnerable to the math of electrical distribution. High voltage lines drop over 7% of their power, due to heat, as it's transported to market. A variable wind energy source also makes load balancing difficult.

On the surface this is not bad. Power plants, by themselves, are only about 50% efficient, according to a 2008 posting at AllExperts.com.

Losses in a hydrogen cycle are even higher. Theoretically, even the best fuel cell will lose 17% of the energy it gets from hydrogen. The energy "cost" of creating hydrogen by splitting water molecules is roughly similar.

AllExperts thus estimates the efficiency of hydrogen at 25%, with half of all energy lost in the conversion to hydrogen, and half of the remaining energy lost as it's consumed.

So if Pickens tried to make his hydrogen energy portable, by turning West Texas' water into gas, he would lose half his load, and half again when that hydrogen was "burned."

Transport raw electricity to a place with a better water supply and you add another 17% loss. Less than 20% of the wind energy actually gets to market in this model. Coal gets 41% of its energy to market -- the 48% efficiency of the power plant less the 7% loss on transit.

Thus, coal is twice as efficient as wind.

This is the math technology has to face in order to come up with alternative energy that works. Pickens did not do that homework. He hoped political pressure would force utilities to buy his wind power, whenever and however it was available. But with the declining price of oil in late 2008 that pressure declined.

Science is required to fill Pickens' dry hole. We need to make alternative energy portable, as coal, gas and oil are portable, and we have to do it a way that makes it just as efficient as those sources.

Answer that problem and the recovery can begin.

This post was originally published on Smartplanet.com

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