Pickens faces headwinds on clean-tech plans

Oilman turned wind-power enthusiast T. Boone Pickens' energy plans are increasingly getting support. But his pet wind project has problems finding a grid to deliver power from his newly bought wind turbines.

T. Boone Pickens addresses members of the press in San Francisco Wednesday.
Erik Palm/CNET

For oilman turned wind-power enthusiast T. Boone Pickens, the future is a bit up in the air.

The "Pickens Plan" for energy independence, launched in July 2008, now has 2 million supporters signed up online. It aims to make the U.S. less dependent on foreign oil by--among other measures--replacing imported oil with wind power and natural gas (two areas in which he has business interests).

His own wind project, however, has problems finding a grid to deliver power from his newly bought wind turbines. If it comes to fruition, the project, Mesa Power, would be the world's largest wind farm, potentially able to produce 4,000 megawatts--enough to power 1.3 million homes .

His company purchased 687 wind turbines from General Electric for $2 billion that can produce 1,000 MW and will be delivered in 2011. But there aren't yet any transmission lines from his wind park to the Texas grid to deliver the electricity to the Texans.

Initially he was going to build the transmission lines himself, but now that's "questionable," he said during a stop in San Francisco Wednesday, part of a tour to promote his alternative-energy plan. A transmission line to the west or east from the Texas Panhandle, he told members of the press, is "a little bit big for us."

Beyond that, Boone has interests in the water rights on his own land and the land he currently leases for his wind project, Mesa Power. With a Texas drought, and water increasingly being seen as the "oil of the 21st century" with peaking supplies, according to some observers, he's not sure whether wind or water will be his most profitable investment. "Where I'll make the most money, I don't know. I haven't made any money yet."

Pickens' wind plans call for spending $150 billion over the next 10 years to install turbines in the "wind corridor" of the Midwest, from Texas to Canada. A transmission line there would cost an estimated $70 billion, according to a 2007 Department of Energy study. The federal government must provide corridors for the transmission lines before private companies can build them, Pickens says. He hopes he can lobby to get government support, with the help of his Pickens Plan supporters.

"I'm not going to end up having 687 wind turbines in my garage. They are going to be spinning somewhere."
--T. Boone Pickens

That plan attracted a lot of attention when oil went to almost $150 a barrel and gasoline prices roared upward in 2008 with pump prices of more than $4 per gallon. Speaking to members of the press Wednesday, he said his plan "stays intact," though the oil prices are down to about $50 a barrel and gasoline is hovering nearer $2 per gallon.

Most of his ideas are now on their way in the Obama stimulus bill, he said. But that doesn't mean he's always thrilled with the way things get done--or don't get done--in the nation's capital.

"When I was a rich guy going to Washington to try to get something done, I got in to see everybody and they were all nice, " Pickens told members of the press before giving a public presentation at the Intercontinental Mark Hopkins hotel. "But not much happened. With 2 million people behind me, I am a hell of a lot more important when I go to Washington, than I was with money."

If he doesn't get transmission lines, Pickens is considering moving the turbines outside Texas where there is access to the grid.

"I'm not going to end up having 687 wind turbines in my garage," he asserted. "They are going to be spinning somewhere."