It’s hard to argue with the many logical points that businessman T. Boone Pickens has made as he has toured the country to sell Americans on the benefits of his Pickens Plan.
If you’ve looked at Pickens’ website or have been lucky enough to see him in person, then you know that Pickens is brilliant and charismatic when it comes to outlining this country’s energy problems. He says that American use of imported oil has been rising steadily for four decades; he blames multiple presidential administrations for failing to turn it around; and he predicts that if we do nothing to combat the problem “we will be importing 75% of our oil and it will be $300 a barrel.”
Pickens does have a remedy for all this, and for that I tip my cap to him. No one else has offered anything that comes remotely close to the scale of the Pickens Plan, and a grand scale is truly what’s needed to solve this problem.
I do, however, have a big issue with the Pickens Plan, and when I had a chance to ask him about it two weeks ago, he had no answer for it.
To understand my issue, though, let’s first look at his plan. The Pickens Plan calls for the natural gas that now provides 22% of the country’s electrical energy to be re-directed to the auto industry. That way, the auto industry could wean itself off oil. Then the plan calls for the electrical grid to draw on massive wind and solar farms to replace the 22% of electricity that’s been lost.
The problem is, virtually every expert we’ve talked to has said that if more than 10% or so of the country’s electricity comes from renewables, then we will need massive electrical storage systems to capture the power. That way, power will still be available when the wind stops blowing and the sun’s not shining. Otherwise, we as a country are going to be experiencing a lot of blackouts.
So let’s use Pickens’ numbers to do a little math: He says the country uses roughly 987,000 MW of electrical power. If we assume we need storage for about 12% of that (that’s 22% - 10%), then we’ll need enough to handle 118,000 MW of power.
That’s a lot of storage. It’s the equivalent of storing the electricity from about 70 nuclear power plants.
And how are we going to do this? Pumped hydro? Compressed air? Huge battery farms?
When I asked Pickens in
Chicago recently, he said this: “I’m not an expert on the storage of electricity. It’s not easy. But those things are coming fast. I know that.” Unfortunately, I didn’t have a chance for a follow-up question, since Pickens’ people whisked him from the press conference minutes later.
I do, however, agree with one point that he made: It’s not easy. We’ve talked to a number of people who have energy storage schemes, and they’re proud to prove they can store 10 MW of electricity. Still, that leaves us a little short, since we need roughly 118,000 MW to fulfill the needs of the Pickens Plan.
I know that Pickens deserves credit for having a plan. But to respond as he did is all too familiar in the world of technology. It’s like saying, “The engineers will do it. Now go away and don’t bother us with the details because we’re big picture guys.” Most engineers have heard that too many times in their careers.
Look, I want to believe in the Pickens Plan. But Mr. Pickens, can you please grace us with a few minor details? Right now, this isn’t so much a plan as it is a drawing on the back of a cocktail napkin.