August 1, 2008

Turning Oil Fields into Wind Farms

Melanie Pahlmann reporting

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An unlikely Texas oilman – none other than the legendary T. Boone Pickens -- has announced plans to build the biggest wind farm in the world. His $10 billion dollar project will produce enough electricity to power an entire city. To date, he has put $2 billion into the project, including a record purchase of nearly 700 wind turbines from General Electric. He expects to begin generating electricity in 2011.

Pickens is not the only Texan to recognize the virtues of wind as an energy source. In recent years the oil capital of North America has emerged as the country's largest producer of wind power. In the little town of Sweetwater, up in the Texas Panhandle, wind turbines are going up at a rate of three to four a day. Some say the number of turbines in Sweetwater could top out eventually around 20,000.

Nearby Nolan County, if it were a country unto itself, would rank sixth on a list of wind-energy-producing nations in the world. It currently produces more wind-generated electricity in a year than all of California. Click on the graph for a fascinating state by state comparison of wind power.

Pickens is quick to note that "there could be lots of Sweetwaters out there," especially through the Midwest corridor stretching from Texas to North Dakota, where big wind and lots of empty space are ideal for wind power generation. Pickens envisions wind as a vital component of an energy plan for the U.S. His newly unveiled Pickens Plan declares that America can cut it's foreign oil needs by more than a third in less than a decade.

The sentiment behind his bold plan is this: "America is in a hole and it's getting deeper every day. We import 70% of our oil at a cost of $700 billion a year - four times the annual cost of the Iraq war. I've been an oil man all my life, but this is one emergency we can't drill our way out of. But if we create a new renewable energy network, we can break our addiction to foreign oil."

So great is Pickens' concern, he has launched a massive information campaign in print and on the web. His intention is to infuse the country's foreign-oil-dependence mania with a business-like pragmatism, replete with numbers, goals, targets and what he says is a realistic strategy. He's also hoping to prod our politicians into meaningful, results-oriented dialogue. "Neither presidential candidate is talking about solving the oil problem," he says. "So we're going to make 'em talk about it."

Ironic, really, that it might take an oil tycoon to nudge us toward a renewable energy policy.