Gone With the Wind

Published July 19, 2008

Mr. T. Boone Pickens’ campaign for government subsidies to wind power, advertised in a full-page ad in The Wall Street Journal and subsequently in an op-ed piece in the same, seems erroneous in several respects.

First, our reliance on imported oil is not a “crisis” unless we make it one. There are cheaper supplies of oil and its substitutes here in the U.S., and the high prices we currently are paying would bring them out of the ground and to consumers were it not for anti-energy policies preventing exploration and drilling. Those policies ought to be changed, rather than executing this elaborate and expensive build-around.

We do not need a single “plan” to transition from oil to some other fuel. We need to allow millions (even billions) of consumers and producers to make their own plans and the transition will occur naturally. I recommend Mr. Pickens find a copy of Friedrich Hayek’s classic essay, “The Use of Knowledge in Society,” and apply it to the current situation.

Mr. Pickens’ plan is to make massive investments in wind power (which can’t compete with coal or even nuclear power) and power lines (because the wind often blows most in areas where people don’t want to live and work), to free up natural gas currently being used to generate electricity (much of that in new facilities built to comply with Clean Air Act standards, which I guess we just discard), which can then be used to fuel cars and trucks (increasing the cost per vehicle by about $3,500 – $6,000, reducing a vehicle’s range on a single tank of fuel by 50 percent or more, and posing new safety issues), all to reduce our reliance on oil. Did you follow that?

Call me stupid, but why not build coal or nuclear plants instead of windmills? They can be built where people are, at a fraction of the cost, on a fraction of the land, with nearly zero environmental impact, and without invoking eminent domain. We could then plug in our hybrids at night and cut our gasoline consumption by 70 or 80 percent, without running natural gas lines to every gas station and without turning our cars and trucks into mobile bombs. I don’t know … it just seems simpler.

By now, everyone knows the limitations of windmills — vast areas of land have to be covered with these lumbering (frequently malfunctioning) giants to generate an intermittent supply of energy that is a fraction of what a few coal or nuclear plants can produce. Under Pickens’ plan, intermittency would still be a major problem. We would still need base-load capacity for “spinning reserve.”

Mr. Pickens is looking for subsidies: eminent domain to run the new transmission lines and build windmills on private land, subsidies to build new power lines, and production subsidies to windmill farm operators. Shame on him.

Adam Smith warned us more than two centuries ago to look out for “the man of system,” who “is apt to be very wise in his own conceit” and imagines that he can “arrange the different members of a great society with as much ease as the hand arranges the different pieces upon a chess-board.”

Sorry, Mr. Pickens. We are not mere chess pieces, and America is not your chess-board.

Joseph Bast ([email protected]) is president of The Heartland Institute, a national nonprofit organization based in Chicago.