Wednesday, July 09, 2008

A Mighty Wind

T. Boone Pickens is a Texas oilman by his own definition. He's also one of the most accurate and insightful energy analysts I've seen in the last decade, and I have a lot of respect for his opinions about the energy markets.

Yesterday I happened to catch him early in the morning on CNBC. He was launching a self-funded campaign to any and all interested parties (political, commercial, academic) to propose a plan to shift the United States' disasterous dependence on external energy sources to those that are domestically produced and freely available, including an enormous abundance of wind.

Here are the plan's highlights in his own words:

How did we get here? There are plenty of financial and economic models, theories, and blogs which can argue the answers to this question. I would suggest that supply and demand ultimately play the biggest roles, and in particular, it is the demand side which is least understood by most people. It isn't just the rise in demand by energy consumers in developing nations such as India and China. Demand has skyrocketed through the creation of derivative financial vehicles such as exchange-traded funds (ETFs), and options markets that enable large pools of money such as retirement funds (like the ones you likely have at work) to bid up the price of oil without even realizing it.

In other words, if you walk to work, take the stairs, and let your 401K be managed by companies that deal in hedge funds, you're probably jeopardizing the planet. Think about it.

Pickens' plan has some fascinating implications for the future. If realized, it could mean the revitalization of the American midwest. Skilled labor will be needed to build, maintain and replace turbines. Support businesses and communities will develop around windfarms in an almost symbiotic relationship between people and the machines that sustain them (a theme not foreign to many science fiction stories of the last century, and likely an accurate prediction of the near future).

Unlike oil fields that have a definitive lifecycle of about 30 years, wind farms lend themselves to a continual lifecycle and sustainable innovation. The technical and logistical problems ahead (beyond the establishment of multiple wind farms) represent an opportunity for science and engineering advancements on a scale we haven't seen since the Apollo program. The potential for commercially developed (and green) innovations in turbine design, power transmission, and battery technologies (to name just a few) are incredible. (BTW, not too far outside the proposed wind belt is a solar belt which is equally exciting for its innovation potential.)

This is a plan worth considering.

There are some humorous ironies that I can't help noting. In Picken's own words yesterday, "we all have to get on the same team". When we consider who might be on that team, we might consider Larry Hagman, best known for his role on the tv series Dallas as oil-baron J.R. Ewing, who has converted his entire California estate to solar and alternative power. We might also consider actor and environmental activist Ed Begley, Jr., who has made similar conversions to his home. One of Mr. Begley's roles was a bit part in the film "A Mighty Wind", which was a mockumentary about the folk music movement of the 1960's. The title song from the film refers to a mighty wind as "blowin' peace and freedom..blowin' equality".

How life imitates art sometimes.

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