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Pickens And Others Show Evolving View on Plug-In Cars
Aug 22, 2008 (From the CalCars-News archive)
This posting originally appeared at CalCars-News, our newsletter of breaking CalCars and plug-in hybrid news. View the original posting here.
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As plug-in cars become more and more mainstream, it's no longer possible to track their every mention. We've reached a new plateau. They're an accepted -- if still distant -- part of the energy/transportation solution. Yet we still have to battle both long-standing and new misinformation. Though we've "arrived," we're stranded waiting several years for the cars; we hope then many misunderstandings and easy but inaccurate generalizations will dissipate. This CalCars-News posting collects and comments on the latest objections, including one that is the basis of T. Boone Pickens's plan for vehicles; we also include extensive reviews of his proposals on wind and natural gas.


You've heard the saying attributed to Christopher Reeve: "So many of our dreams at first seem impossible, then they seem improbable, and then, when we summon the will, they soon become inevitable." We seem to be nearing stage three.

For years we heard carmakers, government and experts say:

  • No one wants them
  • They're doomed by "the complexity of two systems"
  • They don't have emissions benefits
  • If they're so good, carmakers will do it on their own
  • They'll cost too much
  • They'll require building new power plants
  • Batteries aren't good enough
  • If batteries are ready, we won't have enough raw materials


In addition to a couple of trailing objections we cite below, here's a new one:

  • Good idea, but we can't build them quickly enough to make a difference

We hear this latest objection often from advocates and editorialists willing to overlook the decade it could take to get oil from new wells or electricity from new nuclear plants.... (It also reminds us of the people who went from denying that climate change was a problem to focusing solely on adaptation -- skipping the huge middle step of prevention!) Here's a sampling with comments:

ROBERT SAMUELSON, The Great Energy Confusion -- this Newsweek/Washington Post columnist has been warming up to PHEVs but still has reservations. Here's his Washington Post Op Ed, August 13, 2008 plus our comment online­wp-dyn/­content/­article/­2008/­08/­12/­AR2008081202825.html

It's easy to exaggerate how quickly new technologies can improve our situation. Obama says that we can have a million plug-in hybrids averaging 150 miles a gallon on the road within six years (plug-in hybrids run on electricity and gasoline). Sounds impressive. But that would be less than one-half of 1 percent of all vehicles, and the forecast is probably a stretch. The battery technology required for plug-in hybrids is still not competitive, adding $7,000 to $10,000 per vehicle, says Brett Smith of the independent Center for Automotive Research. Obama would address this problem by providing a $7,000 tax credit (in effect: a rebate) on plug-in hybrids. These subsidies might go mainly to upper-middle-class buyers, permitting them to flaunt their "green" credentials (Obama's candor grade: C).

COMMENT (ONLINE): Everything takes a long time to have an impact. Both candidates agree we could get near-term reduction in use of imported oil and in emissions by substituting electricity for oil. The question is how fast can we evolve our fleet to plug in? One million plug-in hybrids in six years would be far more than anyone expects -- but we could do much better than that if we realized it was the end of business as usual. Intel's former CEO Andy Grove in a column in the Washington Post a few weeks ago proposed converting "PSVs" (Pickups, SUVs and Vans), the largest gas-guzzlers...he's calling for 10 million in four years, which is an ambitious goal worthy of our past history in meeting challenges.-- Felix Kramer, Founder,

T. BOONE PICKENS WEIGHS IN: Energy entrepreneur T. Boone Pickens has gained vast attention in recent weeks with is two-part plan: a $10B bet on wind power and a major increase in the use of natural gas as a transportation fuel. He's committed $58 million to promote his ideas -- that's on the scale of what the major oil companies spend! See his website at plus interviews everywhere and many TV ads. His staff is using every oneline tool, including MySpace, Facebook, LinkedIn, Twitter, YouTube and RSS feeds, to stimulate a grass-roots campaign.

Pickens justifies his push for natural gas vehicles by saying that plug-in cars can't arrive in the market quickly enough. Below are his comments on that subject plus a range of other perspectives on Pickens' plan and its implications.

August 11, 2008­newshour/­bb/­environment/­july-dec08/­tbpickens_08-11.html

RAY SUAREZ: A lot of the critiques that have appeared since you've begun to pitch your plan say, yes, wind energy, fantastic idea, let's go ahead and do it. But the second phase of diverting the natural gas that we have here in the United States and putting it into transportation doesn't get that same kind of response. People point out that natural gas is a much more efficient generator of electricity than it is the fuel for a personal automobile. T. BOONE PICKENS: Well, I don't agree with that, but we have plenty of natural gas to do both. And it would be a long time for you to move the natural gas out of power generation. It would take probably five years for it to come out. And so -- but the only thing that you have in America -- you have only one resource that will reduce foreign oil, and that is natural gas. It's the only resource we have that will replace gasoline and diesel. RAY SUAREZ: But instead of building a national grid for distributing natural gas as a fuel to personal transportation, wouldn't it make more sense to keep making electricity with it and just have people plug in their cars? T. BOONE PICKENS: Well, I love the plug-in. That's fine with me. But you can't get to any numbers that way. The other day, somebody said, "We'll have a million cars on the plug-in hybrid in 10 years." We have 250 million cars in the United States, so you can't get to -- a million cars isn't going to do anything for us.

OUR COMMENTS: We think Pickens's advocacy and investment in wind is already having a beneficial effect on the prospects for renewable energy. We hope he will devote significant resources to securing the renewal of the all-important renewable tax credits in Congress.

Note that his wind activities come with a big question mark. Though Pickens says he's so rich that he's simply acting in the public good, a key aspect of his wind plans is extremely controversial in Texas: his efforts to secure land corridors for new transmission lines. Pickens wants this land to double as routes for pipelines delivering water from the enormous Ogalalla aquifer in the Texas Panhandle to Houston and other water-short big cities. A scathing cover story in the June 12, 2008 Business Week, "There Will Be Water"­magazine/­content/­08_25/­b4089040017753.htm describes Pickens's efforts to gain public approval for eminent domain land takeovers by lobbying, creating new "Fresh Water Supply Districts" he controls, overrunning local communities and other opponents. Conservatives don't like the water grab: on July 31, Fox News ran "Pickens Gives New Meaning to 'Self-Government'" by Steven Milloy of the Competitive Enterprise Institute. What about environmentalists? Sierra Club Executive Director Carl Pope is a fan -- see his blog, "T. Boone and Me"­carlpope/­2008/­07/­t-boone-and-me.html . However, commentators at that blog call out Pope on the water issue, as does Steven Milloy in his column.

As for the other half of the plan: Pickens aims to redirect the natural gas no longer needed for power generation thanks to wind power to fuel cars. The key flaw is that natural gas is still a fossil fuel. Its conventional emissions are much cleaner but it's only 30% lower in CO2 than gasoline. (We were amazed to see Pickens pick up our comparison on electricity to gasoline as "Cleaner/Cheaper/Domestic" and apply it to natural gas at­theplan -- more accurately, he might add "Slightly" in front of each adjective.)

Though as recently as 2006, Sierra's Pope thought getting US carmakers to build hybrids was as much as we could hope for, recently he's stopped criticizing plug-in vehicles as unattainable. But he's more enthusiastic about Pickens' natural gas plan, which he calls "an audacious alternative vision" and "feasible." He favors government mandates, incentives to carmakers and vehicle conversion kits. All this makes sense for plug-in vehicles. But even with multi-million dollar backing, these proposals are unlikely to work for natural gas. (Pope also notes natural gas needs an expanded fuel delivery infrastructure.)

With far less attention, Pickens has also jumped in to the legislative arena in California as chief bankroller (over $3.2M via his Clean Energy Fuels Corp.) for Proposition 10, nicknamed "Big Wind." The initiative would apply $5B in bond funding largely to alternative fuel vehicles, including up to $50,000 for natural gas vehicles. Broad criticism centers around its funding by Pickens and suspicions that it's a backdoor way to pay for expanding the natural gas vehicle fleet. At­wiki/­index.php?title=California_Proposition_10_(2008) you can read about the California Alternative Fuels Initiative (and see links to the also-controversial "Big Solar" Prop 7).

OTHER COMMENTS ON PICKENS PLAN: our favorite is from Joe Romm: "Memo to T. Boone Pickens: Your energy plan is half-brilliant, half-dumb:" "We currently use natural gas to produce 22% of our electricity." Most of that electricity comes from gas burned in combined cycle gas turbines at an overall efficiency of up to 60%. Why in the world would the federal government -- or anyone else -- spend billions and billion of dollars on natural gas fueling stations and natural gas vehicles in order to burn the gas with an efficiency of 15% to 20%? Natural gas is simply too useful and expensive to squander in such a fashion. And then there's global warming....Running cars on natural gas does NOT significantly reduce GHG emissions (esp. if there is even the tiniest leak in the whole gas delivery process). Running a car on electricity from the U.S. electric grid does reduce GHG emissions. And running a car on electricity from combined cycle gas turbines would have a far lower GHG emissions than running the car directly on natural gas -- internal combustion engines are simply too damn inefficient. Of course, running a car on the wind power would eliminate vehicle admissions completely. Or using the wind power to displace coal plants would eliminate the emissions from those plants entirely. So a large-scale switch to NGVs by consumers is not going to happen no matter what T. Boone does. But he could help accelerate windpower into the marketplace and for that alone he deserves some kudos.­2008/­07/­08/­memo-to-t-boone-pickens-your-energy-plan-is-half-brilliant-half-dumb/­

At Romm's Climate Progress, also see a followup,­2008/­07/­22/­five-reasons-pickens-is-now-as-tiresome-as-madonna-and-britney and a guest blog,­2008/­07/­27/­a-bone-to-pick-with-t-boone-pickens/­

INTERVIEWS ON PICKENS: See a 20-minute video interview (thanks to Sightspeed video chat) on Etopia-News with Felix Kramer on the Grove plan and on PHEVs in general, at­services/­link/­bcpid932411100/­bclid1729305913/­bctid1731287383 and a 10-minute phone interview with James Woolsey at­services/­player/­bcpid932411100?bclid=1729305913&bctid=1731287398 and a 10-minute interview with Chelsea Sexton at­services/­player/­bcpid932411100?bclid=1729305913&bctid=1732351605

UNEXPECTED AGREEMENT ON PLUG-INS VS. NATURAL GAS CARS: We're seeing support of our views from many quarters, for instance: "Energy Independence Within Reach:" Energy independence is within our grasp, according to Edward Mazria, founder and executive director of Architecture 2030. Speaking at the first annual National Clean Energy Summit hosted by U.S. Senator Harry Reid, the Center for American Progress Action Fund, and the University of Nevada-Las Vegas, Mazria explained that buildings are the key to phasing out conventional coal and reducing oil imports by 86% by the year 2030....."By implementing the 2030 Blueprint, the US could completely replace conventional coal by the year 2025," explained Mazria. Following the Blueprint would also free up the natural gas used to produce the electricity currently used in buildings by the year 2030, so that it could be used to generate electricity for plug-in hybrid and electric vehicles. "We very much support T. Boone Pickens' plan, however, we propose using the freed-up natural gas to generate electricity for vehicles, as opposed to using it directly in vehicles," said Mazria.

ANDY GROVE ON PICKENS: this strong advocate for converting internal combustion engine Pickups, SUVs and Vans to run partly on electricity, in "The Elephant in the Tank" from Portfolio Magazine, August 17, 2008 says, Pickens proposes to build massive wind farms in the nation's center to generate a large part of America's electricity, which would then liberate the natural gas that is currently used to generate electricity. If the cars on the road were to be retrofitted to run on natural gas, Pickens argues, the need to import the corresponding amount of petroleum would disappear. Setting aside the task of retrofitting over 200 million vehicles, this plan raises a fundamental question. Natural gas, like oil, is a global commodity that can be shipped anywhere. Even if it is produced in the United States, what makes it stay here? It does so if, and only if, the United States pays the prevailing market price for it, just as we are paying market price for the petroleum fueling our cars today. So very little would change. Read the article at­news-markets/­top-5/­2008/­08/­17/­Why-Pickens-and-Gore-Are-Wrong and with comments at­techbiz/­people/­news/­2008/­08/­portfolio_0818

We enjoyed the analysis in the August 18 Detroit Free Press by Justin Hyde, "2 industry outsiders have vision to steer Detroit 3 back on track." It starts out saying, An Oklahoma oil billionaire and a Silicon Valley titan have committed themselves to reforming the U.S. auto industry -- whether Detroit's ready or not. It examines the plans and Detroit's "lukewarm" response, but includes quotes only about the Pickens plan, and concludes, "In their defense, they've got to make money, and they don't want to take risks and they're damn near broke," Pickens said. But, Grove said, "The sight of the gallows sharpens the mind. Fifteen billion in quarterly losses makes you re-examine the old truisms that you've operated with."­apps/­pbcs.dll/­article?AID=/­20080818/­BUSINESS01/­808180320

Also see a multi-part dialogue in the LA Times on energy markets, Pickens, and plug-in cars between John White, Executive Director of the Center for Energy Efficiency and Renewable Technologies in Sacramento and Jerry Taylor, Senior Fellow at the Cato Institute -- the most recent one with links to earlier exchanges is­news/­printedition/­suncommentary/­la-oew-taylor-white22-2008aug22,0,7549360.story


  • Some people don't have a home garage outlet

We hear it anecdotally; we could use a household survey. Polls have in the past shown that half to two-thirds of U.S. households have access to a plug (much fewer in Europe and Asia). Here's a recent a UCDavis study:"Study Finds About 1/3 of US New Vehicle Buying Households Have the Required Infrastructure and Buying Interest for PHEVs"­2008/­08/­study-finds-abo.html OUR COMMENT: There are no technical breakthroughs needed to enable cars to plug in at multiple locations: it's mostly a software project, plus a Green Collar Jobs project to install the hardware. New companies like will be enabling streetside, workplace and public garage charging infrastructures as quickly as needed.

"McCain touts energy plan at nuclear plant," by Matthew Bigg, Tue 5 Aug 2008: Newport, Michigan (Reuters) - Republican presidential candidate John McCain visited a nuclear power plant on Tuesday to tout his plan to battle rising energy costs by expanding exploration of traditional sources like nuclear power and offshore oil drilling. McCain criticized Obama for his refusal to consider expanding U.S. nuclear energy industry and mocked his call for 1 million plug-in hybrid calls on U.S. roads by 2015. "If we want to enable the technologies of tomorrow like plug-in electric cars, we need electricity to plug into," he said.­world/­news/­usnN05341085.html

OUR COMMENT: McCain knows PHEVs mostly plug in at night when there's plenty of extra power. (Since the Pacific National Lab study was released in early 2007 it's been clear that today's grid could fuel over 3/4 of our current cars if they turned into plug-ins overnight.­calcars-news/­657.html .). But speaking at a nuclear power plant, he says we need new capacity.

HELP ON A QUOTE? for those dedicated enough to read this far: We've seen but can't put our hands on a much older quote than the one from Christopher Reeve about how ideas are rejected and then embraced by skeptics; we'd welcome hearing from anyone for whom this rings a bell.

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