Energy investor T. Boone Pickens has changed his mind about government subsidy of energy markets — again.
Until recently Pickens has been promoting federal legislation titled H.R. 1380: New Alternative Transportation to Give Americans Solutions Act of 2011, or NAT GAS act. The bill provides a variety of subsidies, implemented through tax credits, to producers and users of natural gas. The goal is to promote the use of natural gas for a transportation fuel, particularly for long-haul trucks.
Now, according to reporting in Politico, Pickens said about the transition to natural gas “It’s going to happen, and you don’t have to have Washington do it, thank God.”
Later in the article Pickens is quoted as saying “You don’t have to have a tax credit; it’s going to happen.”
Before promoting subsidies for natural gas as a transportation fuel, Pickens actively promoted wind power, another form of energy production that receives government subsidy. In 2008 Pickens ordered 667 wind turbines worth $2 billion from General Electric. Now, in the Politico article, he concedes he lost a lot of money on this venture.
His plan, at that time, was to use wind power to generate electricity, and the natural gas saved would be used to power transportation. But there’s another relationship between wind power and gas, and it stems from the unreliability and variability of wind power. It’s difficult to quickly adjust the output of most power plants. But natural gas turbine plants are an exception. Kansas recently saw one of its major electric utilities complete a new natural gas power plant. The need for the plant was at least partly created by its investment in wind: A document produced by Westar titled The Greenhouse Gas Challenge noted the “Construction of the 665 MW natural gas-fired Emporia Energy Center, providing the ability to efficiently follow the variability of wind generation.” In another document announcing a request for a rate increase it stated “Our Emporia Energy Center is excellent for following the variability of wind production.”
At the time of these investments by Pickens and Westar, the price of natural gas was high. Now it is low — so low, and the prospects for future low prices certain enough — that Pickens has abandoned his wind farm projects. Even with all the subsidy granted to wind power, it’s cheaper to generate electricity with gas.
Let’s hope this is the last time Pickens develops a plan to tap the federal taxpayer to pay for his plans.