Oilman T. Boone Pickens made a splash last week by announcing plans to build a wind farm with 4,000 megawatts worth of generating capacity. The Pickens Plan calls the U.S. the Saudi Arabia of oil wind, and he notes that, "At current oil prices, we will send $700 billion dollars out of the country this year alone — that's four times the annual cost of the Iraq war." His logic in making this investment is pretty straightforward:
Building wind facilities in the corridor that stretches from the Texas panhandle to North Dakota could produce 20% of the electricity for the United States at a cost of $1 trillion. It would take another $200 billion to build the capacity to transmit that energy to cities and towns.
That's a lot of money, but it's a one-time cost. And compared to the $700 billion we spend on foreign oil every year, it's a bargain.
Great -- the more energy we generate at home, the more we can invest in rebuilding the U.S. economy and infrastructure. Somewhat less obvious is the logic of his suggestion that this electricity be used to free up natural gas now burned to provide ~20% of US electricity, and instead use that gas to power cars.
There are very few natural gas powered cars in this country, and it would take an enormous investment to either retrofit existing vehicles or replace a large fraction of the existing fleet in less time than the present ~13 year life cycle. Moreover, burning natural gas in large turbines is way more efficient than burning it in small car engines, so it is actually better used to produce electricity for the grid. It would seem to make more sense to just use the added electricity generation capacity from wind to directly offset petroleum use.
Why not just replace or retrofit the fleet with plug-in hybrids that substantially increase the efficiency of cars regardless of their fuel type? Then you could be agnostic about the specific engine technology and fuel, but still know you could potentially double the mileage of any given vehicle by recharging from the electricity grid? Here, for example, is a story at Wired News by Chuck Squatriglia in which Andy Grove, the CEO of Intel, calls for converting 10 million cars and trucks in the U.S. to plug in hybrids over the next four years. The story quotes John Dabels, CEO of conversion start-up EV Power Systems, as saying his company can provide an $11,000 conversion kit that bolts onto the transmission of existing cars and trucks and delivers a 30-40% increase in liquid fuel efficiency. Google has evidently been running a fleet of plug-in Priuses and Escapes with a 50% improvement over the standard hybrid. These are early numbers. Efficiencies are bound to increase as better batteries and electric motors enter the market.
Pair plug-in hybrids with microbial biofuel synthesis -- oh, alright, and even cellulosic ethanol -- and suddenly you get way more out of your feedstock and thereby reduce pressure on food prices. Not that I am biased or anything.