Friday, July 31, 2009

Senator Air America on the Job

Just arrived in Washington, Al Franken is making headlines already . . . for berating a rich, influential guest invited to a Democratic Party event by Democrats.

T. Boone Pickens, oil gazillionaire presently touting the idea that wind energy can solve our Republic's various problems,* appeared at the Democrats' weekly policy lunch yesterday. Franken made it a point to berate him loudly for his financial support for the so-called Swift Boat ads.

Of course, Al Franken may yet prove to be an important source of wind energy, so perhaps the exchange will be akin the fabled falling apple meeting Isaac Newton.

*We aren't sure how someone with Pickens' wealth can fail to do the math that tens of millions of wind turbines would be necessary to replace fossil fuels in America's energy grid.


Micah said...

They deserve each other.

Wind energy is actually worse than useless. Solar power has the potential of providing for energy needs, but wind doesn't actually reduce greenhouse emissions at all (because its high variability means that coal/nuke reactors must be kept "hot" even if no power is going to the grid).

Every dollar spent on wind energy is a dollar wasted. Solar might one day pay off, but wind never will.

Jon A. Alfred E. Michael J. Wile E. SWNID said...

Both wind and solar also alter the landscape in ways that are not at all attractive. They highlight the ecological advantage of fossil fuels: their alteration of the landscape is limited to very small plots of land.

One can imagine ways to overcome the variability of wind and solar: e.g. using surplus energy at peak production times to pump water into giant towers, from which it would be released to run turbines during peak demand or low production times (essentially converting solar or wind energy to electric energy to potential energy to kinetic energy and back to electric energy). It takes a massive improvement in technology, however, to overcome the waste of all those conversions.

texas two step said...

Wind farms are only half of the Pickens plan. The other half is natural gas.

There are places where wind farms make sense if you have or can build the infrastructure to distribute. West Texas is generally ugly even without wind farms. There are large areas of land with few or no people and wind variables are a negligible issue. There are other areas of the country, especially west of the Mississippi, that fit that description also.

Pickens is putting his money where is mouth is. He's building a wind farm outside of Pampa TX and has stopped only because the money is not there (yet)for distribution. He also owns the rights to enough natural gas leases to make his next 3 or 4 billion when that takes off as an alternative fuel for vehicles. (AT&T has already announced they will spend several 10's of millions of dollars on alternative fuel vehicles.)

Wind energy has a place but it's not a magic bullet. And Pickens is not just concerned about the energy future of America. He's still a serious capitalist and stands to make serious money for his heirs since he probably won't live long enough to see the big payoff

Miss Piggy said...

Pickens is a typical modern day capitalist that is lobbying government for programs to benefit his business / investment plans (but portraying it as beneficial to the country). He was hoping to capitalize on the prevailing environmental winds as a part of the enviromental industrial complex. Those winds came to a standstill with the recession.

If Pickens could make a profit off of his ideas on his own, he would have already done so. But he can't. He needs massive (billions of dollars) subsidies provided by little taxpayers / ratepayers as dictated by policymakers.

Hydroelectric is a relatively inefficient (costly) source of electricity compared to coal and natural gas. Pumping water into towers wouldn't get the job done. We would have to pump water up stream to giant reservoirs. Solar is prohibitively expensive now just to make power immediately available. To add the energy loss of converting it to pent up kinetic energy (backing water up against gravity), would be doubly expensive / inefficient as SWNID points out.

Paying more for environmentally beneifical energy will not work in a world economy where the vast majority of our competition will not hamstring themselves this way. Everything that we do to make fossil fuels (or alternative energies) more expensive or to make consumption more expensive (conservation or taxes) also makes fossil fuels cheaper for others (increasing their consumption). So we should only do what is genuinely (not politically) cost effective for us.

There is less natural gas available than coal (hundreds of years less). The good thing about coal (if the govt stupidly decides not to use it in the US) is that it is unlikely to be exported. Unused oil will just go to other customers at cheaper prices (if we deny ourselves in self-righteousness). The coal will be here for the next crisis / war (when we are desperate). That's an example of one of the few unintended consequences that might be good. One day we'll be making cars that burn coal!

The great thing about solar is that we have a lot of desert in the southwest, places where nobody lives. Solar is more space efficient than wind. Wind turbines are noisy, tall, ugly, spread out. All of that future solar power should go to southern California and surrounding populated areas, not be inefficiently transmitted to the eastern US (way too expensive and wasteful). The East should use nuclear and coal, and eventually electric or partially electric cars. Oil should be pumped unceasingly into the strategic reserve when it is cheap.

Jon A. Alfred E. Michael J. Wile E. SWNID said...

Lots of new technologies appear to be environmentally preferable to existing ones, until they're actually executed. We question whether Americans will be happy with the aesthetics of a Southwestern desert covered with solar cells, and we expect that if such massive installations were ever accomplished, the next generation would catalog their significant impact on flora and fauna. It is the romantic, utopian notion that such technologies are "green" to which we object most strenuously. Any alteration of the geosphere affects the biosphere and can be criticized for so doing.