The Institute for Energy Research is a not-for-profit organization that conducts intensive research and analysis on the functions, operations, and government regulation of global energy markets.

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Pitfalls in the Pickens Plan

The “Pickens Plan” to reduce America’s dependence on foreign sources of oil by erecting massive wind farms and redirecting natural gas to the transportation market is fatally flawed.  IER has identified the following pitfalls:

Wind power is intermittent

Wind power is intermittent—electricity is generated only if and when the wind blows, and blows hard enough to spin the blades of turbines.  In addition, many turbines have to be shut down to avoid catastrophic damage when the wind blows too hard.  Consequently, in the very best areas, wind-produced electricity amounts to only 35 to 40 percent of a turbine’s capacity.

Wind power is non-dispatchable

Unfortunately, energy consumers can’t tell the wind to blow more when they need more electricity.  Typically, the winds blow most consistently in the morning when electricity demand is low, and less during the afternoon when electricity demand is high. The hottest days are the days without wind, leaving the peak load to be met by conventional energies. Reliable operation of the electricity grid requires generation that can be turned on and off the “flip of a switch.”  Wind power cannot provide this flexibility. 

Wind power is not easily or efficiently transmitted
Wind farms are often hundreds of miles away from consumers, and require massive investments in transmission lines to deliver electricity from the farm to the power grid and the consumer.  Large amounts of electricity are lost as it moves over transmission lines—a problem known as “line loss”— especially over long distances.  This makes wind a double-loser in the economy game.
 
Wind energy needs backup power that comes mostly from natural-gas fired power plants
Because wind is intermittent and unreliable, new wind generation requires the building of backup electrical generation. Most commonly, backup generation is provided by natural gas-fired power plants. Unlike coal or nuclear power, which can literally take days to heat boilers up to the appropriate temperature, natural gas turbines can spin up and produce electricity very quickly.  Thus, the federal government should open new areas for natural gas production to meet growing demand for power, just the opposite of what the Pickens Plan espouses (“this is one emergency we cannot drill our way out of”). 
 
Because wind can displace only a small amount of natural gas, it won’t help make natural gas a transportation fuel
Pickens wants wind to displace the natural gas used to generate electricity so that the gas can be used as a transportation fuel.  Coincidentally, Pickens has investments in natural gas and has been advocating its use as a transportation fuel for two decades.  However, because of the need to backup wind power with natural gas-fired electricity, it is unlikely that the Pickens Plan will free up natural gas for use as a transportation fuel.
 
Natural Gas and Cars
Pickens’s plan ignores the costs of motorists retrofitting their cars to run on natural gas, and retrofitting service stations with natural gas pumps.  Unless motorists buy new cars that run on natural gas, they would have to use their trunk space for heavy fuel cylinders.


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