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Dec 022008

By John DeFore

The most visible hiccup in oilman T. Boone Pickens’s well publicized green energy agenda is his decision to delay that enormous wind farm of his.

A new essay, though, suggests there’s more wrong with the tycoon’s plans than his having to rely on the credit markets to realize them. Writing for the Earth Policy Institute, Jonathan G. Dorn argues that modifying American autos to run on compressed natural gas (CNG) would be a waste of time and effort.

Dorn goes beyond the obvious conceptual criticism — that natural gas is a finite resource, like oil, so making that switch means at best simply buying more time — and gets down to details of the proposal. He says that, even without using gas for transportation, the U.S. already uses about a quarter of the world’s gas supply while owning only 3% of proved reserves. “At current rates of consumption,” he says, “U.S. proved reserves would only meet national demand for another nine years.”

Dorn envisions that a switch to natural gas-powered cars would make the U.S. more and more dependent on imports, and notes that the two nations at the top of the list of those with large reserves, Russia and Iran, aren’t exactly countries we want to rely on.

As for further gas exploration here, he cites environmental worries surrounding extracting natural gas from “unconventional sources” like tight sandstone and gas shales.

The wiser course, Dorn says, is to keep using gas to generate electric power — where, with gas as part of a mix that includes growing levels of renewable energy, spikes in gas prices won’t have the power to cripple us — and direct our automotive energies toward the introduction of plug-in hybrid electric vehicles (PHEVs). Arguing that this is a much wiser use of energy, he cites the low efficiency of internal combusion engines to conclude that, “with today’s energy mix, PHEVs [plug-in hybrid electric vehicles] running on electricity from the grid are nearly three times more efficient than NGVs [natural gas vehicles] on a ‘well-to-wheel’ basis—that is, when considering the full life cycle of the energy source, from fuel extraction to combustion to vehicle propulsion.”

“Burning natural gas in a new combined cycle power plant is three times as efficient as burning natural gas in a car,” he continues.

“Even including electrical losses from transmission, distribution, and battery charging, running a car on electricity from a natural gas power plant is more than twice as efficient. Keeping natural gas in the electric sector to help power a fleet of PHEVs is therefore the logical choice. Wind-generated electricity should replace electricity from coal-fired power plants, the most polluting power source.”

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