What About the Solar Corridor, Mr. Pickens?

It’s clear our country is reaching what future generations will see as a watershed moment as it relates to our current energy situation and how we handle it.  In the U.S. alone, buildings account for roughly 70% of electricity use and 39% of energy use, so any discussion of our energy future naturally implicates the built environment.  The current state of discussions on our energy future has brought together some incredible minds and one of those is the great T. Boone Pickens, an expert in recognizing scarce resources and future energy trends.  Just today, he announced his efforts relating to the PickensPlan — a plan he explains himself in the above video.

Now, I think Mr. Pickens is definitely probing one of the better ways to alleviate our dependence on foreign oil, but I also think he’s skipping over an important aspect of this discussion on our country’s energy mix. 

The Pickens Plan
You’ve probably already heard details of the PickensPlan and I don’t want to spoil the above video, but here’s the gist:  based on the 20 Percent Wind Plan, the U.S. can generate enough wind power to supplant the use of about 20% of natural gas used to fuel power plants.  You start using wind power to generate energy for power plants, and you switch natural gas over for use in cars, trucks, buses, and other forms of transportation. 

The plan makes some sense in the near term.  Use wind energy to fuel power plants and use natural gas to fuel our transportation infrastructure.  But there’s still something missing in Mr. Pickens’ analysis and it isn’t a discussion of nuclear energy, which Mr. Pickens refers to in his white board presentation.  In discussing the PickensPlan, Mr. Pickens states that other than oil, "natural gas and bio-fuels are the only domestic energy sources used for transportation."  That’s not entirely correct. 

The Other Corridor
Mr. Pickens doesn’t seem to discuss (as far as I can tell) the connection between solar power and the future of transportation.  He talks about the solar corridor, but he doesn’t explain how the solar corridor could help relieve our dependence on foreign oil, too.  I’ll skip the white board video response for now, but here’s how it would work, generally speaking: 

First, you start converting cars to plug-in hybrids and all-electric vehicles.  Second, you roll out smart grid technology that allows you to plug in vehicles at buildings and charge them during off-peak hours.  Third, you pump up development of solar energy in the solar corridor using on-site or utility scale solar energy production.  We talked about all this recently in discussing the Prius and Solar Trees.  With solar power flowing into the grid, you can power your vehicles without using oil, natural gas, or coal. 

Back in 2006, the Department of Energy released a study suggesting that there’s enough off-peak electrical capacity to power 84% of the country’s vehicles.  Of course, we’ll need energy storage systems to utilize solar power at night, but we also need to re-think the entire transportation system altogether. 

Here’s What I’m Saying
I’m seriously impressed with Mr. PIcken’s efforts and I’m okay with him getting filthy rich(er) off wind energy projects in the process.  We all know he has financial interests at stake here.  But, we can’t discount the power of solar energy to make a difference in the transportation infrastructure of our future either. 

Joseph Romm over at Grist makes a couple salient points that I didn’t lay out, but that were implicit in all of the above.  First, natural gas is still a fossil fuel, although it’s cleaner than oil.  As Mr. Boone states, it’s abundant here in the U.S.  Second, for fuel, vehicles can use oil, natural gas, biofuels, AND electricity.  We can and should be finding ways to re-direct solar and wind power to the grid for use in plug-in hybrids and electric vehicles.  In doing so, we obviate the need to use natural gas vehicles.

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  • http://seattlegreenobserver.com Rafael

    Nice post! I think solar and wind will be the way to go. I do wonder if there is any action individuals can take on their own accord to gain momentum with this rather than wait for politicians and corporations to come around… if they ever do. I mean, can individuals have an impact on this problem if they begin installing solar panels on their homes and riding electric cars instead?

    Let’s see where this all goes. Great site by the way…

  • gator

    What does solar power have to do with electric cars that wind power does not? Why can wind power be used to offset natural gas use in power plants, but solar cannot?

    Mr. Pickens argues that wind should be the the preferred renewable energy source because the U.S. has an abundance of it, as evidenced by the map showing more wind in the U.S. than any other country.

    One could also argue that wind power is much cheaper than solar. Although we hope this will change soon, solar power is currently a very expensive source of energy.

  • gator

    More on the cost of wind:

    “Cost per unit of energy produced was estimated in 2006 to be comparable to the cost of new generating capacity in the United States for coal and natural gas: wind cost was estimated at $55.80 per MWh, coal at $53.10/MWh and natural gas at $52.50.”
    from: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Wind_power

  • Andy

    Mr. Pickens is a beginning….too bad that our lousy federal government hasn’t gotten off of their lobbyist-greased butts to take the initiative, first!! He has started an effort that will force Washington to do something progressive by grabbing the limelight and showing leadership to put solutions in place.

    The “drill your way out of this” dinosaurs must go with the past. This 80-year old “futurist” is to be admired and followed………..

    • http://www.jetsongreen.com Preston

      I agree and as I say at the end of the article, I’m seriously impressed by the leadership shown by Pickens with the PickensPlan. I don’t want this article to be construed as lacking in support for his plans.

      To be clear, PickensPlan states that natural gas and bio-fuels are the only domestic fuel sources for transportation. But that is not correct as a result of the advent of plug-in hybrid and electric vehicle technology. Literally, a third domestic fuel source for transportation is also electricity. Because it’s electricity, solar, wind, and other stuff will take a front seat in this situation.

      The solar corridor shown in the white board presentation is huge. There’s a red swath cutting through the Southwest United States. That should be developed and used as a fuel source for vehicles, in addition to developing the wind corridor. We just need to remember that the solar corridor could be a source of fuel for transportation, too.

  • ‘Tom G

    Good post and Mr. Pickens is off to a good start by putting his money where his mouth is. Here is my take on the subject.

    1. Wind will be important and we can create giga watts in a short period of time. GM, Ford and others should be gearing up for the production of wind turbines instead of laying off American workers. Can they manufacture them; of course they can. Will they; sure would be nice to create another 10,000 American jobs.

    2. Solar is coming along nicely. Nanosolar now has a continous roll machine [one machine] which can create 1 gigawatt per year at $1.00 per watt. If it was me, I would put 25 of those suckers online and find 10,000 workers to cover most of our rooftops with panels.

    3. Solar thermo is also getting competitive and with molton salt storage is good for several hours after peak use periods. At last count about 150 permits for several hundred mega watts of power are awaiting approval.

    4. Let’s not forget geothermal. It is much like nuclear since it acts like a base load plant. Base load plants are those that run 24/7/365. We have about 60 currently operating and they can be quickly brought online.

    5. For our cars; I for one can’t wait until my local dealership has an electric or plug-in hybrid available. I am sick of the 20-25% efficiency of the Internal combustion engine.

    6. And then of course we need bio-fuels, geothermal heat pumps, maybe even coal to oil if we can do it clean and all the other stuff in the works.

    BUT what we need more than anything is ACTION. We need the get the NIMBY people on-board. We need to get the government out of the way or at least stop putting road blocks in the way of solutions.

    • http://www.jetsongreen.com Preston

      Well said, Tom. You make some excellent points and I want to add a link here to a good article at Earth2Tech relating to what we should know about natural gas vehicles.

  • Anonymous

    What about the rigs that move America; trucks, trains & tractors. I haven’t seen anything about coverting them to electric, the technology just isn’t there yet. But, unless you want to give up things like eating and so on, you are still going to need diesel fuel. BTW, I don’t think the US could grow enough bio-crops to generate all the fuel needed at the moment.

  • McKinnon

    Pickens is talking BRIDGE here. The “market” is not responding to CO2 levels. It’s really slow responding to transportation costs. It will take real people producing real alternatives (and real big money, thanks, Pic) to make any change in energy base. Rifkin talks about this in The Hydrogen Economy. Germany is showing what can be done with real committment and follow through.

  • http://www.pickensenergyplan.com scotty

    There is a public Forum for discussions about Pickens plan :

  • Wendell

    We don’t have to wait for any of this stuff to happen to make a difference. This weekend, we travelled to Massachusetts from New Jersey and back for a family birthday party in our hybrid [brand withheld so you can pick one that suits your needs by reading Consumer Reports]. We got 49.2 miles a gallon overall. The first leg of our trip was on Friday night with no stop-and-go traffic, and we got 52.8 MPG.

    We pay an extra 1.3 cents a kilowatt hour for our electricity to buy 50 percent wind/50percent small hydro through our regular power company. Neither kind that we use is imported from a foreign country. I am sure that we more than make up for the extra cost by keeping our air conditioner set at 78 degrees F and by replacing our incandescent bulbs with compact flourescent ones as they burn out. Our first CFL burned out a few months ago. We bought it in 1995.
    Our house is heated with natural gas which is more efficient than oil and is underpriced because of the ususal supply and demand reasons. Keep this in mind when buying a new house or if you have the option of changing from oil to natural gas in your current one.
    Many years ago, we replaced our 300 gallon gas-fired hot water heater for my business with a gas-fired tankless heater. We intend to do the same at home once the water heater dies. If you use electricity to heat you water, it is probably worth while changing to gas if you have that option even if your current unit is brand new.

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