By Jeff Siegel
I was pretty bummed out yesterday after hearing that T. Boone Pickens would be canceling his 4 GW wind farm project. Not so much because that beautiful 4 GW wind farm won't be built in Sweetwater, TX – but because this little piece of news is likely to serve as an excellent opportunity for renewable energy naysayers to leave a fresh trail of misinformation about the wind energy industry.
It's already plastered all over message boards and blogs.
Here are a few comments that I found on one particularly hostile message board...
“Why did anyone believe this wind farm would ever get built? Wind energy is a scam. It's just another reason for big government to make more money off the backs of taxpayers.”
“T. Boone Pickens is only trying to make money. He realized that he couldn't make money from a stupid wind farm that nobody wants anyway, so he walked away. When are people in this country going to wake up and realize that coal is whats best for Americans. It's cheap and we have 500 years of it. Time to silence the crazy treehuggers that are bankrupting this country.”
“LOL! What a joke. Drill Baby Drill!!!”
We know why these folks are spouting off. They simply have no problem furthering our reliance on fossil fuels (which in some respects, could be perceived as treasonous). Environmental concerns are laughable to them (because most have absolutely no idea that natural capital can no longer be liquidated without fiscal consequences) and quite a few still believe that they'll be labeled as liberals if they embrace renewable energy integration.
I guess they didn't get the memo about how supporting the integration of renewable energy is probably one of the most patriotic things you can do.
Regardless, there seems to be a lot of speculation about why Pickens canceled the 4 GW farm, and is now restructuring his wind energy plans. But it is likely that the main reason is transmission.
In 2011, 687 GE wind turbines are scheduled to be delivered. But the necessary transmission lines being built to move all that wind power won't be ready until 2013. Bottom line: He can't have $2 billion dollars worth of turbines sitting around for two years while transmission is still being built. Therefore, Pickens is looking to build three or four smaller wind farms elsewhere.
Truth is, this is not an issue with wind energy. It's an issue with infrastructure. And much of the necessary infrastructure upgrades are being planned and built right now.
You see, transmission doesn't go up like shopping malls. These are huge, capital-intensive projects. But don't let the fossil fools use this as an opportunity to further their campaigns of misinformation about renewable energy integration. These upgrades and new developments ARE happening, primarily because our current infrastructure is crumbling, and it's in desperate need of modernization.
Of course, those billions (that's right, billions...with a “B”) in stimulus funds are going to enable this massive undertaking too. These upgrades will not only help us move all that new renewable power to the grid, but they'll also enable a more efficient utilization of all the power we generate – both renewable and non-renewable.
Of course, as a renewable energy advocate and investor, I'm primarily focused on renewables. And the fact is, across the nation, new transmission is being built in an effort to facilitate new wind energy projects. Sure, the recession has slowed development. But the recession has slowed development of coal, nuclear and oil projects too. Nothing has been spared. But when the smoke clears, it will primarily be renewable energy projects that get back on track the fastest.
Truth is, hardly anyone wants to touch a coal project these days, even if it is intended to be a mythical “clean coal” project. And while I believe it's possible that we will see some future nuclear development, issues with NIMBYism (Not In My Backyard), waste disposal and extremely high capital costs will make those projects a lot more difficult to get off the ground, compared to new wind farms, solar fields and geothermal power plants.
So yes, Mr. Pickens' announcement is a setback for the wind industry. But it won't stop the momentum that will continue to allow wind, as well as all other renewables to become a much larger part of our overall energy mix.
And investors who are forward-thinking enough to realize that fossil fuel depletion and climate change initiatives will dictate our future energy production, should benefit handsomely by going long on infrastructure and smart grid plays. Companies like Itron (NASDAQ:ITRI), ABB (NYSE:ABB) and American Superconductor (NASDAQ:AMSC). And of course, the solid renewable energy plays, like First Solar (NASDAQ:FSLR), SunPower Corporation (NASDAQ:SPWRA) and Ormat Technologies (NYSE:ORA) – just to name a few.
That being said, overall market conditions will continue to trump sector potential. Especially in these shaky economic times. And throughout the rest of 2009, and well into 2010, it's still going to be a bumpy road for everything. But long-term, we remain extremely bullish on renewable energy and grid development.