The Clean-Tech Investor Summit is over and the participants have gone home, taking with them impressions about the current state of affairs and forecasts for the year ahead.
Arguably the most memorable speech was one by T. Boone Pickens, oil-magnate-turned-clean-energy advocate, on Wednesday. In a speech peppered with anecdotes about politicians and Pickens’ trademark frankness, he called for the audience to press the Obama administration – as well as their state and local lawmakers – to take real steps toward more energy independence.
Even though independence from foreign oil has been a recurring theme in political rhetoric since Richard Nixon, the amount of oil that the United States imports has grown from 24 percent in 1970 to nearly 70 percent today, he said. About half of that 70 percent comes from the Middle East and Africa, which are not stable areas, he added. “It grades from not friendly to hating us, is where that oil’s coming from,” he said, to laughter. “And it’s incredible that we have drifted off into this never-never land of somehow believing that we have oil. … We operate like we have oil.”
Unsurprisingly, Pickens used his speech to push his plan, called the Pickens Plan, to use a combination of mostly natural gas and wind to stop the country from importing oil. “You cannot get to the conclusion that we can reduce foreign oil in quantities that are meaningful without using natural gas,” he said, adding that natural gas is cheaper and more abundant than oil – “and it’s ours.”
“Why do you think Iranians are switching everything over to natural gas?” he asked. “Here we have an abundance of natural gas – more than we know that to do with. … Everybody that’s got natural gas is switching to natural gas but us. Around the world, people have got to be wondering whether we’re that smart.”
Of 9.8 million natural-gas vehicles in the world, only some 142,000 are in the United States, he said. His idea is to use natural gas for heavy-duty trucks and fleet vehicles, replacing diesel, and to use wind and solar power to replace natural gas for electricity. Light-duty vehicles would use batteries and electricity, he said.
Pickens also called for incentives for trucking companies to gradually switch heavy-duty trucks to natural-gas versions, whenever the trucks need to be replaced. The program would cost $28 billion, create more than 400,000 jobs and reduce dependency on foreign oil by 5 percent, he said.
America’s high oil bill makes it worthwhile for the country to reduce the amount of oil it imports, he said. “Even at $40 a barrel, we’re still looking at $400 billion a year,” he said, estimating that a 10-year production tax credit on wind power, for example, might cost $15 billion over a decade. “Whatever the cost of the solution, it’s cheap compared to the problem,” he added.
While it’s clear that Pickens favors natural gas and wind, that doesn’t mean he’s against solutions such as nuclear power or new technologies, he said. “I’m for anything American,” he said. “Anything that’s ours, I want it. … I’m against foreign oil.” The opposite is also true – he’s against green technologies that are not American. “I don’t want to get hooked on Chinese batteries, I can tell you that,” he said. “I’d just as soon use Saudi oil as Chinese batteries.”
Pickens also emphasized the importance of taking action now. He compared increasing energy independence to planting a tree, saying that the best time to plant a tree is 20 years ago, and the next best time is today. “I’ve talked to people who think we need a study. Study my ass,” he said, to more laughter. “We need to get something started. … We need to start today. We can’t sit around. Study, fine. R&D, fine. But get something started and these things can be added as they come along.”
Will Coleman, a partner at Mohr Davidow Ventures, said that while Pickens clearly has a specific agenda, he doesn’t fault him for it. “Everything is going to be pushed forward by individual agendas,” he said. “One of the interesting things is that what’s he’s proposing is not rocket science. More than anything, what the government needs and what we need is something simple. … We need to figure out the right policies to support this.”
Aside from various government policies, including cleantech provisions in the economic stimulus bill, other widespread themes at the conference included the difficulties of raising capital, the need for better transmission and grid infrastructure, and a shifting focus — among some investors — from early-stage technologies to potentially quicker-return technologies that are “shovel-ready” today.
Photo credit: Pickens Plan