A change of plan

Guest post by Liu Ning, an intern at chinadialogue and a student at University of Nevada, Reno.  

On August 2, China’s Ministry of Industry and Information Technology showed that China’s dependence on foreign oil had exceeded that of the US for the first time, reaching 55%.  The National Development and Reform Commission’s Energy Research Institute, expects import dependence to rise to between 60% and 70% by 2020.  In the US oil import dependence is about 49%. But as reformed oil tycoon T Boone Pickens abandons wind for natural gas, it looks less likely that increased energy independence will result in increased renewable energy investment.

In 2008, in an effort to reduce America’s ongoing dependence on foreign oil, founder of Mesa Power Group, Pickens, introduced the “Pickens Plan”. The plan—backed by the Obama Administration—was to replace natural gas power plants with wind plants, and then use the excess natural gas to power vehicles, diminishing the need for foreign oil.  Pickens estimated that 20% or more of America’s electricity supply could be generated by wind power, and under the right leadership, vehicles could convert from gasoline to gas in less than 10 years. According to Pickens, his plan could reduce the amount the country spends annually on foreign oil by 43%.

Pickens began work on the plan—announcing that he would build the world’s largest wind farm in west Texas. The plant was intended to generate more than five times the electricity of the largest wind farm at that time—enough to support more than one million homes.

However, in 2009, Pickens was forced to postpone plans to build the wind farm because existing transmission line capacity wasn’t yet available. Without financial support to build the new lines–and low natural gas prices making wind power comparatively too expensive–Pickens dropped his plans for wind farms at the end of 2010. Then in a move confusing to environmentalists, Pickens planned to file a complaint against Canada’s Ontario Province Green Energy Act, charging that its unfair rules prevented his company from winning contracts for two wind plants.

Now he is concentrating on drilling for natural gas as a road to energy independence. Some experts are afraid that drilling techniques–especially hydraulic fracturing or “fracking”–may contaminate water. Josh Fox, director of “Gasland,” said the “Pickens Plan does nothing to reduce emissions and would push unregulated toxic gas drilling into overdrive, further contaminating huge areas of the United States.”

Despite the high potential environmental costs, the cost of foreign oil dependence remains great—nearly 1 trillion yuan in China. If wind plants cannot be built, then other options, including natural gas, will be considered. China’s recoverable shale gas resources are believed to be about 26 trillion cubic metres, roughly the same as those of the United States, and the pressure to develop them is enormous. China’s leaders are likely watching Pickens evolving plan with some interest.

Photo courtesy of WAstateDNR – Department of Natural Resources’ photostream.