Thursday, December 23, 2010

Boone Pickens' Wind Plans Go Horribly Awry

There have been two recent editorials in the Wall Street Journal regarding the folly of wind power as a major component of US energy policy. A lead staff editorial on 23 December discussed a number of questionable aspects of federal wind power energy policy. The 23 December piece, by Robery Bryce, entitled A Wind Power Boonedoggle, lampooned Boone Pickens' vaunted alternative energy policy, announced 30 months ago, featuring wind power.

I wrote posts here, here and here concerning Pickens' "policy." Now it seems his extensive wind farm investments have fallen afoul of the low price of natural gas.

Bryce wrote in his editorial,

"The Dallas-based entrepreneur, who has relentlessly promoted his "Pickens Plan" since July 4, 2008, announced earlier this month that he's abandoning the wind business to focus on natural gas.

Two years ago, natural gas prices were spiking and Mr. Pickens figured they'd stay high. He placed a $2 billion order for wind turbines with General Electric. Shortly afterward, he began selling the Pickens Plan. The United States, he claimed, is "the Saudi Arabia of wind," and wind energy is an essential part of the cure for the curse of imported oil.
Voters and politicians embraced the folksy billionaire's plan. Last year, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid said he had joined "the Pickens church," and Al Gore said he wished that more business leaders would emulate Mr. Pickens and be willing to "throw themselves into the fight for the future of our country."
Alas, market forces ruined the Pickens Plan. Mr. Pickens should have shorted wind. Instead, he went long and now he's stuck holding a slew of turbines he can't use because low natural gas prices have made wind energy uneconomic in the U.S., despite federal subsidies that amount to $6.44 for every 1 million British thermal units (BTUs) produced by wind turbines. As the former corporate raider explained a few days ago, growth in the wind energy industry "just isn't gonna happen" if natural gas prices remain depressed."

So much for predicting the rise of one energy source by hoping for scarcity of another. And it's sort of funny, because, separately, Pickens has been stumping for natural gas-powered vehicles. So I guess one windfall threw another of his energy bets for a big loss.

Bryce went on to note how well-subsidized wind power has been,

"Despite wind's lousy economics, the lame duck Congress recently passed a one-year extension of the investment tax credit for renewable energy projects. That might save a few "green" jobs.

But at the same time that Congress was voting to continue the wind subsidies, Texas Comptroller Susan Combs reported that property tax breaks for wind projects in the Lone Star State cost nearly $1.6 million per job. That green job ripoff is happening in Texas, America's biggest natural gas producer.
Today's low natural gas prices are a direct result of the drilling industry's newfound ability to unlock methane from shale beds. These lower prices are great for consumers but terrible for the wind business. Through the first three quarters of 2010, only 1,600 megawatts of new wind capacity were installed in the U.S., a decline of 72% when compared to the same period in 2009, and the smallest number since 2006. Some wind industry analysts are predicting that new wind generation installations will fall again, by as much as 50%, in 2011."

According to Bryce, Pickens is moving his wind turbines to Canada, where mandatory alternative energy legislation requires utilities to buy power he'll generate up there with his new toys.

All of this makes you wonder just how much of Pickens' vaunted plan was a way to drive federal subsidies for his investment strategies, doesn't it?

Meanwhile, in the earlier Journal staff editorial, the writers note how much less efficient wind power is, in terms of megawatts/worker production. It "takes at least 25 times more workers to produce a kilowatt of electricity from wind as from coal."

The cost to taxpayers for each wind-related energy job was estimated at $475K in the editorial. There's no way private industry could accommodate such expensive job-creating investments. Only government, taxpayer-funded subsidies would be so foolishly squandered.

I think the larger story here is that Pickens' wind-based defeat exposes his eagerness to benefit his investors at the explicit expense of taxpayer subsidies, while never effectively responding to charges that his alarm over the US oil import bill is unjustifiable on purely economic bases.

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