Mr. Pickens, What About Plug-In Hybrids?

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By Elisa Wood

July 17, 2008

T. Boone Pickens deserves kudos for his attention-grabbing television campaign aimed at helping America kick the oil habit. The billionaire energy fund manager can stop the most dedicated channel surfer mid-click when he proclaims that our spending on foreign oil could soon become the largest transfer of wealth in human history.

Pickens’ plan has two parts The first calls for more use of wind power. No surprise there. Few forward-thinking energy plans do not put wind generation front and center.

But we’re stumped by the second part of his plan, which is that we use the wind power to replace natural gas-fired power plants and then use the left over natural gas for cars. On the surface the equation seems to make sense: it cuts back on our use of gasoline. But scratch a little, and Pickens’ idea doesn’t seem to add up.

Consider what has happened to the power generation industry this decade. We have seen a proliferation of new natural gas-fired plants because gas is a relatively clean fuel, and the plants can be built quickly and easily. As the nation moves toward regulating carbon dioxide emissions, public policy (intentionally or not) encourages even more of their construction. This is because gas-fired plants do not emit as much carbon dioxide as the coal-fired plants that provide about half of our electric power.

Unfortunately, as we’ve built more gas-fired plants, demand for natural gas has increased and its costs have skyrocketed. Gas prices are largely blamed for the tripling of electricity rates over the last eight years in places like New England.

The Pickens plan wants to replace one expensive fuel with another to power our cars.

Given this reality, wouldn’t the Pickens plan make more sense if it pushed plug-in hybrid electric cars? Plug-in cars appear to be a natural companion to wind power. Presumably car owners would plug their vehicles in at night to recharge. Evening is typically a windy time, so turbines would whir, pushing power into the grid to feed the cars. We won’t run out of wind as we could natural gas, and it is essentially a free fuel. On top of that, plug-ins are nearing commercial operation and do not require massive building of fueling stations, as natural gas-fired vehicles do.

Obviously, our electric grid will never be powered only by wind. But it seems we could avoid much of the massive transfer of wealth Mr. Pickens warns about by trying to push the wind/plug-in car relationship. So, Mr. Pickens, what about the plug-in hybrid?

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About Elisa Wood

Elisa Wood is the chief editor of She has been writing about energy for more than three decades for top industry publications. Her work also has been picked up by CNN, the New York Times, Reuters, the Wall Street Journal Online and the Washington Post.