Pickens pitching alternative energy

TOPEKA, KS His message in the first of his dozen planned town hall meetings in Great Plains states was simple: America is addicted to foreign oil, and that must change. He told a crowd of about 750 people that the U.S. imported 24 percent of its oil in 1970 and now imports 70 percent, at an annual cost of $700 billion.

Pickens' plan calls for erecting wind turbines in the Midwest to generate electricity, replacing the 22 percent of U.S. power produced from natural gas. The freed-up natural gas then could be used to power vehicles now reliant on gasoline and diesel.

He estimates the cost at $1 trillion to build the turbines in a wind-swept corridor from the Texas Panhandle, through western Kansas to North Dakota.

"Anything we do is cheap compared to what we pay out for foreign oil," Pickens said. "We are very close to a disaster for this country and we have to move as fast as we can."

He's spending $58 million to promote his "Pickens Plan" via such means as TV commercials and public meetings. His next session is Aug. 6 in Lamar, Colo., and other dates and locations are being worked out.

Pickens said politics also must play a role and that Democratic and Republican presidential candidates must come up with answers.

"This has got to stop. We can put together an army to pressure on Congress to stop the $700 billion," he said.

Pickens said there are about 85 million barrels of oil produced daily throughout the world and global demand is 86 million barrels. The U.S., with 4 percent of the world's population, uses about 25 percent of the oil, he said.

"You don't have to attack the United States to put us on our back," he said. "You just cut 30 percent of the oil."

He said the money paid for foreign oil "goes out to a few friends and a bunch of enemies."

Pickens took questions from more than a dozen audience members, including one who noted that natural gas, like oil, is a limited resource.

Pickens agreed, calling it a "bridge" to technology yet to come. In the meantime, natural gas can be combined with wind energy or solar power until something better comes along, he said.

People came from around the state to hear Pickens, and many said his proposal makes sense.

"We don't have to pay God for the wind, but we do have to pay the Arabs for the oil," said Mark Allerheiligen, of Bremen.

Mike Papke of Wichita said, "Anything to use less foreign oil is great. Being in Kansas, there's a lot of wind."

Gov. Kathleen Sebelius, a longtime advocate of alternative energy sources, introduced Pickens. In January, she formed a group to promote wind power in a state where 73 percent of the electricity generated comes from coal-fired plants.

Sebelius wants wind power to account for 10 percent of the state's 10,000 megawatts of generating capacity in 2010 and 20 percent by 2020. She said the 10 percent goal will be met by year's end, with eight wind farms generating 1,013.4 megawatts.

The governor also is locked in a legal and political dispute with Sunflower Electric Power Corp. over plans for two coal-fired power plants in Finney County. In October, her administration denied an air-quality permit to Sunflower, based on the plants' potential carbon dioxide emissions. Four legal challenges are pending.

Pickens has leased hundreds of thousands of acres for a giant wind farm in West Texas, where he plans to erect 2,700 turbines and produce energy. The plan still needs final approval from utility officials.

In Washington last week, Pickens told a Senate committee that the government should begin building transmission lines for wind-generated power or provide the right of way on private land and extend tax credits so the private sector can build the lines.

Pickens' plan has its critics, including Eric Rosenbloom, an East Hardwick, Vt., science editor who runs the Web site National Wind Watch.

Rosenbloom said with wind power, additional power plants are needed to offset the times when the wind isn't as strong. He said the best type of plant to balance wind is natural gas.

"It would require increasing natural gas on the grid rather than freeing it up," Rosenbloom said. "It's not going to free up natural gas for transportation. There is no way."

But Pickens said he takes such criticism in stride.

"I've got a plan. We can fine-tune it," he said.

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