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.