Al Gore versus T. Boone. Take Your Pickens

Former vice president Al Gore got a lot of attention last week with a call to make the U.S. electric power system completely carbon-free within ten years, a startling idea that some find inspiring. Meanwhile, Texan oilman T. Boone Pickens has been running full-page newspaper ads promoting his "Pickens Plan," the idea being to replace the electricity we make by burning natural gas with wind-generated power, and to use the freed-up gas to fuel automobiles. It's not hard to detect the element of self-interest in that plan: Pickens is building a huge wind farm in Sweetwater, Texas--and reportedly owns the country's largest natural gas company. But even allowing for self-promotion versus self-sacrifice, if you had only the Gore or Pickens plan to choose from and wanted to take a stake, you'd do better to pick the T Boone.

This blogger yields to none in his admiration for Gore the science popularizer and Gore the proseletizer. The former senator and presidential contender has delivered his "inconvenient truth" lecture hundreds or thousands of times over the last few years, and devoted countless weekends at his home near Nashville to training selected volunteers to give proxy versions of the speech. But when it comes to politics and policy, oddly, the man is a loose cannon.

A couple of years ago Gore floated the idea of replacing all U.S. payroll taxes, including those that support the Social Security system, with environmental taxes. The politician who promised voters in the 2000 presidential election that he would treat Social Security as a "locked box" seemed to have forgotten that the whole point of environmental taxes is to be self-liquidating: they're meant to discourage and ultimately eliminate undesired activities. Once emission of pollutants and greenhouse gases is ended, where is the tax revenue going to come from to support Social Security?

Now Gore is saying we can completely abolish carbon-emitting electric generation within ten years, implying that anybody who disagrees has a can't do attitude. Well, the fact is we can't do it. Right now we produce half our electricity from coal, the most carbon-intense of fuels, and one-fifth from natural gas. Gore wants to replace all that by some combination of wind, solar, and geothermal. But geothermal is a tiny niche player in electricity generation and photovoltaic solar is still far from market-ready. That means that really only wind is available to do the job, and the most optimistic projection--one recently issued by Department of Energy labs--is that wind could deliver one fifth of our electricity by 2030, not three quarters and not by 2018.

From that point of view, the Pickens plan at least has the advantage of being realistic. T. Boone wants to take the natural gas that currently supplies 22 percent of U.S. electricity and have it, in compressed form, fuel automobiles instead. (He points out in his short and pointed video presentation that 6 million cars in the world already run on compressed natural gas, an excellent automotive fuel.) He will have wind-generated electricity replace the power currently made from gas, with the aim of sharply reducing U.S. dependence on foreign oil. (Regarding nuclear, both Pickens and Gore propose to keep its electricity share at 20 percent--a notable concession to reality on the part of Gore, who previously has leaned anti-nuclear.)

Concern about energy dependence motivates the Pickens plan, while Gore's intent is to cut the chances of catastrophic climate change. This difference is key, because the Pickens plan, though eminently doable, does almost nothing to reduce U.S. greenhouse gas emissions. If one's main concern is to kick the carbon habit, however, it's desirable not to eliminate the role of natural gas in power generation but to increase it to replace some of the power now made from coal. (Natural gas emits only one third or one half as much carbon per unit energy as coal, and this is why developing countries that replace coal with gas generation qualify for Kyoto credits.) Together with expanded reliance on wind and nuclear, perhaps half of the electricity now made from coal could be generated by zero-carbon or low-carbon sources by 2020.

Whether your preference is Gore, Pickens or some other action plan, it all keeps coming back to the ongoing big story in power, which is wind. At the end of last week, as the ink was drying on the Pickens Plan, Texas regulators approved a $4.93 billion transmission expansion, to accommodate the state's fast-growing wind generation. Yes, $4.93 billion.

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