I attended a conference on Monday where a Texas oil man was roundly praised as a visionary for proposing that the United States solve its emerging energy crisis by drilling for domestic natural gas. A conference chaired by Newt Gingrich to support his “drill here, drill now” campaign? No…this was Harry Reid’s Clean Energy Summit 2.0. Let me say that again, surrounded by such notables as Harry Reid, Al Gore, Wesley Clark, Stephen Chu, Van Jones, and John Podesta, T. Boone Pickens proposed drilling into the country’s plentiful domestic natural gas reserves as a way of reducing our dependence on foreign oil. In any other venue, such an opinion would produce shrieks of rage from environmentalists, but this was Clean Energy Summit 2.0 and Pickens’ pronouncement was heralded as nothing short of brilliant and visionary. The fact that power produced by the combustion of natural gas generates copious quantities of carbon dioxide managed to get a weak whimper out of Al Gore but was otherwise ignored in this gathering of environment-friendly types. Stephen Chu was also silent in spite of the fact that studies done by his own Department of Energy have predicted that a scenario where 20% of the country’s power is generated by wind and solar backed up by gas turbines would generate more carbon dioxide than a scenario where that 20% was generated by gas turbines alone. This seemingly bizarre conclusion is a result of the fact that a gas turbine runs most efficiently and most cleanly when it is operated continuously; while constantly spinning them up and down to accommodate gaps in “renewable” generation is extremely inefficient.
Given that one year ago, T. Boone had stood with Harry at his first Clean Energy Summit and declared that wind generation was the power source of the future for the US, this turnaround might well seem astounding. However, clearly the past year has been an educational one for Mr. Pickens. It doesn’t take a whole lot of thinking to recognize that wind generators and solar arrays only generate power when the wind blows or the sun shines. Since power cannot, at present, be stored, what this means is that for every megawatt of wind or solar power that is installed, a megawatt of back-up generating capacity is required. The only type of power generation currently available that can be brought on line quickly to accommodate the loss of capacity due to clouds covering a solar array or the wind dying is a natural gas turbine. Once your thought process has brought you to this point, it’s not a very long walk to the recognition that, if you have to install the gas turbine capacity to back up wind and solar generators, you can run the gas turbines 24/7, which is much more efficient than running them intermittently, and cut your capital costs significantly by not installing the wind and solar plants at all. If Pickens has come to the conclusion that a commitment to install gas turbine capacity makes an investment in wind and solar unnecessary, he kept it to himself on Monday. However, in the year between Harry’s two Clean Energy Summits, Pickens has divested himself of his wind power investments and shifted his focus to the recovery of natural gas from domestic oil shale. After that, a phone call to Harry – accompanied by a sizable contribution to Harry’s reelection campaign, one suspects – seems to have been sufficient to change the Clean Energy agenda. In a sense, Pickens’ proposal has driven a stake through the heart of massive wind and solar generation in the near future for this country, especially if separate entities own and operate the gas turbines generators and wind power fields.
T. Boone Pickens’ announcement was an astounding departure from the theme of the previous Summit where reduction of greenhouse gas emissions through the use of renewable energy sources was the focus. In truth, natural gas is a “renewable” energy source, but more on that later. While a great deal of lip service was paid the the reduction of greenhouse gas emissions at Monday’s Summit, especially out of Al Gore, Pickens’ announcement and the general acquiescence of the group, pretty much cut the legs out from under any argument that the conference had anything to do with combating climate change. What the conference was clearly about was jobs as speaker after speaker stressed. Two union representatives made the pointed comment that unemployment in construction unions in northern Nevada was running around 50%, while a small number of large projects in southern Nevada had kept that unemployment number to around 25%. Consequently, there was a great deal of discussion about the weatherization program money that the Department of Energy has released to the states being used to put these construction workers back to work. Whether or not iron workers, electricians, and plumbers will jump at the opportunity to go around chalking windows remains to be seen. Another widely acclaimed source of new jobs was the manufacture, installation, and maintenance of all the megawatts of wind and solar generators discussed in last year’s Summit. The fact that T. Boone’s initiative has for all practical purposes pulled the plug on those installations seems to have escaped the attention of the attendees as has the fact that the major manufacturers of wind generators and solar panels are currently all off-shore…but why should such details be allowed to interfere with the whole feel-good, self-congratulatory attitude of the day.
The one throwback to last year’s Summit was the always-entertaining Al Gore, who has not toned down his global warming rhetoric a bit…and yes, he still calls it “global warming”. Coming at a time when the carefully orchestrated fabric of the global warming farce has begun to unravel, Al’s doom and gloom is growing increasingly comical. Recent revelations of ten years of steadily decreasing global temperatures, of James Hansen’s much celebrated historical temperature trends being seriously flawed through either sloppy science or outright fraud, of studies that have demonstrated that ocean currents are the primary drivers of short-term climate change not atmospheric composition, of observations of Arctic ice that have shown the observed melting is due to a cyclic temperature change known popularly as “spring” have slowly, but surely begun to shine sunlight on the vampire of “global warming”…and Al Gore is increasingly being relegated to the position of America’s “crazy uncle” that everyone feels compelled to invite to Thanksgiving dinner, but can’t wait until he drinks enough to pass out.
Finally, natural gas as a “renewable resource”…yes, it is. Up until about 25 years ago, it was thought that natural gas has a similar source as oil, i.e., the decomposition of organic matter buried in the earth, and much of the natural gas found in proximity to oil reserves almost certainly derived from organic sources. However, as plate tectonics and movements of the Earth’s crust have become better understood, there is increasing recognition that the vast majority of natural gas deposits are inorganic in origin and that these deposits are constantly being renewed. In a grossly over-simplified nutshell: At the leading edge of every continental plate is a subduction zone. One of the most well-known subduction zones is marked by the San Andreas fault where the North American plate is riding up over the Pacific plate. As the Pacific plate slides under the North American plate, it carries millions of tons or sea water and carbonate deposits with it as the plate travels down towards the mantle. The highly reducing conditions deep underground cause the water and carbonates to react to form methane, the primary component of natural gas. It is estimated that the entire contents of the ocean are cycled through subduction zones in this way about once every 10 million years. The upshot here is that there is an enormous amount of natural gas being actively generated every year. It is renewable and we’re not running out. Note also that the carbonate deposits on the ocean floor are caused by carbon dioxide dissolving in sea water and then precipitating out, mostly as either magnesium or calcium carbonate, so this raw material for methane production is also being renewed by the very carbon dioxide being produced by the combustion of methane.
While his approach has changed radically in the past year, T. Boone Pickens has remained consistent in stating that his primary motivation is to reduce America’s dependence on foreign oil, most of which is owned by regimes not necessarily friendly to us. His shift from a focus on “green” technologies to natural gas represents, I suspect, a hard-eyed look at the economics of wind and solar power. In spite of the strange bedfellows he is keeping these days, his ideas are rational, make economic and political sense, and deserve everyone’s support.