Want a Better Way to Power Cars? It’s a Breeze

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Photo By Fotolia/Petair
One of the attractions of pairing wind energy and plug-in hybrid cars is that it would not require new infrastructure. Indeed, a study by Pacific Northwest National Laboratory points out that the existing grid, using its off-peak capacity to recharge cars, could provide electricity for more than 70 percent of the U.S. fleet if all cars were plug-in hybrids.

Legendary Texas oilman T. Boone Pickens is half right. We do need to harness this country’s wind resources for a homegrown source of electricity, as he has been urging this summer in expensive television ads. And we do need to reduce the $700 billion we may soon be paying annually for imported oil. But part two of Pickens’s plan — to move natural gas out of electricity production and use it to fuel cars instead — just doesn’t make sense.

Why not use the wind-generated electricity to power cars directly? Natural gas is still a fossil fuel that emits climate-changing gases when burned. Let’s cut the natural-gas middleman.

Plug-in hybrid cars are here, nearly ready to market. We just need to put wind in the driver’s seat. Several major automakers, including GM, Ford, Toyota and Nissan, are working on plug-in hybrids. Both Toyota and GM are committed to marketing plug-in hybrids in 2010. Toyota might even try to deliver a plug-in version of its Prius gasoline-electric hybrid, the bestseller which outnumbers all other hybrids combined in sales, next year.

Some Prius owners aren’t even waiting for Toyota. They’ve converted their hybrids to plug-in hybrids by adding a second storage battery, which increases the distance you can drive between recharges, and an extension cord that you can plug into any wall socket to recharge the batteries from the electrical grid. This lets them push the car’s already exceptional gas mileage (about 46 miles per gallon) to more than 100 mpg.

GM is very much in the game with its Chevrolet Volt. This plug-in car is essentially an electric car with an auxiliary gasoline engine that generates electricity to recharge the batteries when needed. It boasts an all-electric range of 40 miles, more than adequate for most daily driving. GM reports that under typical driving conditions, the Volt should average 151 mpg.

This car technology is developing alongside wind turbine technology, setting the stage for an vehicles powered largely by cheap wind energy. The U.S. Energy Department notes that North Dakota, Kansas and Texas alone have enough wind energy potential to easily satisfy the electricity needs of the entire nation. To actually put wind power on the road, of course, we would have to tap the wind resources in nearly all the states, plus off-shore wind resources, which the DOE says can meet 70 percent of national electricity needs.

Texas, this country’s leading oil producer for the last century, is now our leading generator of electricity from wind, having eclipsed California two years ago. With more than 5,500 megawatts of wind-generating capacity now in operation and two vast wind-farm complexes under development, the state will have more than 20,000 megawatts of wind-generating capacity (think 20 coal-fired power plants). Pickens, with his own 4,000-megawatt wind farm under development in the Texas Panhandle, is one of the largest investors. These wind farms could satisfy the residential electricity needs of nearly half the state’s 24 million people.

The key to this massive development is the participation of the Texas state government. The state facilitated the construction of transmission lines that link the strong wind resources in west Texas and the Panhandle to major markets — known as “load centers” — in Dallas, Fort Worth and Houston.

While many residents in some places, such as Cape Cod, Mass., take a NIMBY (Not In My Backyard) view of wind farms, the opposite is true in much of the rest of the country — including the ranch country that extends from Texas north through the Dakotas. There, it’s a PIMBY (Put It in My Backyard) perspective. In ranching regions, competition among communities for these wind farms, and the jobs and tax revenues that come with them, is intense. Each wind turbine on a rancher’s land typically brings a royalty of $3,000 to $10,000 per year, with no investment on the landowner’s part. And the ranchers can continue to graze cattle on the land.

States outside of ranch country are also chiming in on the wind energy trend. California’s largest project is a 4,500-megawatt cluster of wind farms in the Tehachapi Mountains in the south that will soon supply a large part of Los Angeles’s electricity. Some 30 other states — led by Iowa, Minnesota, Washington and Colorado — now have commercial-scale wind farms.  

New wind proposals are popping up everywhere. In July, California-based Clipper Windpower and BP announced a joint venture to build a 5,050-megawatt wind farm in eastern South Dakota. Because this would produce far more electricity than the state needs, the companies plan to build a transmission line across Iowa, feeding the electricity into Illinois and the Midwestern industrial heartland.

In the East, Delaware is planning an offshore wind farm of up to 600 megawatts — enough to meet the residential needs of 40 percent of its residents. To the north, in Maine, a proposal by the governor to develop 3,000 megawatts of wind-generating capacity (more than enough to meet the state’s residential electricity needs) passed both houses of the legislature unanimously in April. In the Northwest, Oregon and Washington are turning to wind to complement their hydropower resources.

While most of these developments are in the planning stages, the potential — and the desire for wind energy — is high. That’s because wind wins on almost every count. It is carbon-free, cheap, abundant and inexhaustible — and it is ours. No one can embargo the supply, the price never changes, and wind farms can be built in 12 months.

This is why shifting to natural gas to fuel cars, as Pickens recommends, isn’t the best move. In contrast to wind-generated electricity, where costs are falling, the price of natural gas is on its way up. Reserves of natural gas, like those of oil, are shrinking. And ironically, as with oil, we import natural gas, sending money abroad for one-sixth of our supply.

Beyond that, there’s the infrastructure question. How do we get the natural gas to the nation’s service stations? These stations also would need to install pumps for natural gas, in addition to those for gasoline.

One of the attractions of pairing wind energy and plug-in hybrid cars is that it would not require new infrastructure. Indeed, a study by Pacific Northwest National Laboratory points out that the existing grid, using its off-peak capacity to recharge cars, could provide electricity for more than 70 percent of the U.S. fleet if all cars were plug-in hybrids.

With peak oil on our doorstep, the prices of oil and gasoline are projected to continue rising. While gasoline prices are probably headed to $5 to $10 a gallon in the coming years, the wind-generated-electricity equivalent of a gallon of gasoline costs less than $1.

We are now in a position to launch a crash program to convert to plug-in hybrids on a massive scale and at breakneck speed. This would resuscitate Detroit, reinvigorate thousands of the country’s wind-rich rural communities, dramatically cut carbon emissions and quickly reduce the vast outflow of dollars for imported oil.

The car companies themselves seem on board — witness GM’s massive advertising push for the Chevy Volt, with spots airing frequently during NBC’s Olympics broadcasts. After showing a progression of cars, the ad ends with the Volt, standing at the base of snow-capped mountains, clouds traveling swiftly overhead. Its launch is targeted for 2010. Perhaps by then, the wind moving the clouds will also power the sleek-looking sedan below.

Copyright © 2008 Earth Policy Institute

Lester R. Brown is President of Earth Policy Institute and author of Full Planet, Empty Plates. He is recognized worldwide for his global perspective on environmental issues and for his development of Plan B, a plan to save civilization through stabilizing population, cutting carbon emissions, and restoring the earth’s natural support systems. Find him on .

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