Legendary Texas oilman embraces wind power

  • Article by: THE ECONOMIST
  • Updated: July 25, 2008 - 12:06 AM

T. Boone Pickens wants America to make a huge investment in wind-power infrastructure. He will personally spend $58 million to make the case.

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Oil billionaire T. Boone Pickens wants to line up wind-energy towers across the nation’s midsection.

Americans spend $700 billion a year on foreign oil. According to one observer, this is an addiction, a crisis and a trap: The country must pursue alternative energy sources as fiercely as it once shot for the moon.

So far, so much liberal boilerplate?

The critic in question, however, is a Republican oilman: T. Boone Pickens. As he puts it, in an Okie drawl: "I've been an oilman all my life. But this is one emergency we can't drill our way out of."

He wants America to make a huge investment in wind-power infrastructure. During this election season, he will personally spend $58 million to make the case.

Pickens' interest is not solely altruistic. His company, Mesa Power, already has invested $2 billion to build the world's largest wind farm in Pampa, a small town in the Texas panhandle.

He told a Senate committee in June that he is going to pay for the transmission lines that will carry Pampa's power to the Dallas area because he cannot wait for the state to build them. As he likes to point out, he is 80 years old and worth $4 billion. So profit is not the only issue, either.

Texas is the nation's No. 1 producer of wind power, ahead of second-place California and third-place Minnesota, according to the American Wind Energy Association's 2007 annual report.

A report from the Department of Energy said in May that America could build enough wind farms to provide 20 percent of the nation's electricity by 2030.

The Pickens plan calls for America to meet that goal by building wind farms throughout the windy corridor that runs up the country from Texas to North Dakota. It would cost $1 trillion to build them, plus another $200 billion to connect them to places where the power is most needed, which are inconveniently far from the corridor.

That is a staggering outlay, but it would free up American natural gas, which now generates 22 percent of the country's electricity, to be used for motor vehicles. The idea is that Americans could switch en masse to natural-gas vehicles, and the country could stop importing so much oil.

As a bonus, Pickens, said, the industry would create jobs and revitalize rural America. He points to the west Texas town of Sweetwater to prove his point. Ten years ago it was just one more struggling speck on the prairie. Its only excitement was an annual rattlesnake roundup. Then the wind industry started to take hold in west Texas and the panhandle.

Locals initially fretted that the turbines would be too noisy. They also worried that they would mar the vast horizon. Other west Texans are less enamored of the original view. "The landscape is an eyesore," said a man from Groom.

In any case, the turbines look nicer as the benefits accrue. In 1999, the state's wind-power capacity was 180 megawatts. Today Texas generates almost 5,000 megawatts -- most of it concentrated in the northwestern quarter of the state.

The economic impact on Nolan County, which encompasses Sweetwater, will be $315 million this year. Wind has brought more than 1,000 new jobs to town.

This boomlet has made an impression on Texans. Wind power accounts for 3 percent of the state's electricity, compared with 1 percent nationwide. But the tax credit that has been driving its growth is about to expire. And then there is the question of the creaking grid. The state is considering a plan that would enable transmission of 17,000 additional megawatts at a cost of $6.4 billion.

Building wind-power capacity will not be easy. But there is an emerging agreement in Texas that it's worth the trouble. That's where Pickens can make a difference. His plan is undeniably quirky. Its emphasis on natural gas is strange, for one thing: America does not have many natural-gas vehicles.

But if Pickens wants to use his own fortune to sell the general public on the idea of wind power, that is all to the good. No one can accuse him of being a softheaded tree-hugger.

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