Bagasse from sugar cane is an alternative fuel source worth further research.© Rufino Uribe
Pickens correctly points out that expanded use of wind and solar, while intermittent, can save significant amounts of natural gas, the most environmentally benign of our fossil fuels and largely available from domestic sources. He then advocates that natural gas resulting from this displacement be used to power America’s vehicles. This would cut the need for foreign oil, reduce pollution and has been technically doable for a long time. But this is the fork in the road where Pickens makes the wrong turn. Until we figure out how to sequester the carbon emissions from coal-based electricity or add significantly to the number of nuclear plants, we face a critical need for natural gas to reduce the use of coal. After having ignored the problems of greenhouse gases and global warming for decades, our nation cannot add more coal plants without risking great damage to our climate. There’s not enough gas to take on bigger roles for both transportation and electricity.
Fortunately, there are other alternatives for powering our cars and trucks that will work as well or better than natural gas. First and foremost, we need to demand more efficient vehicles. The Energy Independence and Security Act passed last year mandates that the 25 miles per gallon (MPG) currently required for cars and light trucks be raised to 35 MPG by the year 2020. But we should not have much trouble raising the standard by a mile and a half a year. That gets us to 40 MPG by 2020 and 55 MPG by 2040. Ethanol produced from corn kernels is not worth the federal subsidies currently provided. But we should be utilizing liquid fuels from other plant sources, such as corn stover (the waste materials left over), bagasse from sugar cane, wood chips and switchgrass. Even more exciting, but perhaps further down the road, is biofuel produced from algae. We also have the option of plug-in electric hybrid vehicles, which are very attractive economically, especially if recharging takes place at night when the demand on the electric grid is low. In other words, we can take the bold action Pickens calls for and still reserve natural gas for electric generation.
The Texan who wants to end our addiction to foreign oil may not have every detail right, but we should be grateful that he’s calling for some mighty big solutions to some mighty big problems.
CONTACT: T. Boone Pickens" website
From 1993 to 2000, JAY HAKES headed the Energy Information Administration, the data and analytic arm of the U.S. Department of Energy. He has just published A Declaration of Energy Independence: How Freedom from Foreign Oil Can Improve National Security, Our Economy, and the Environment (John Wiley & Sons, 2008, $27.95).