Friday, October 31, 2008

Ambitious energy plans lose momentum as oil prices drop

Al Gore has a plan for the nation’s energy crisis. Reformed oil man T. Boone Pickens has one, in addition, to his devious plan to win Oklahoma State a national championship, and Google even has designs on reforming the way we procure and consume energy.

Each plan features nuanced methods focusing on biofuels, solar and wind energy along with natural gas.

The similarities? How about a whole lot of money.

Speaking at the Commonwealth Club earlier this month, Google CEO Eric Schmidt (pictured above) said the total price tag of focusing the country’s attention to alternative fuels could run between $4-5 trillion over the next 22 years.

Schmidt said the overall savings from weening the U.S. off oil could be as much as $5 trillion.

“Cheaper to fix global warming than to ignore it,” he said.

Google’s philanthropic interests unabashedly intersects its desire for profits.

“Why is Google doing this?” Schmidt asked Commonwealth Club members, “Well, it is important to our business. We are a large consumer of electricity and we’re likely to be consuming more, and we want the prices to go down.”

A A New York Times piece Oct. 28 by Miguel Helft shows Google’s thirst for energy to be a sensitive topic.

Google has gone to great lengths to conceal how much electricity it uses in its data centers. For example, Google agreed to build a $600 million data center in Oklahoma only after the state legislature passed a law exempting public utilities from disclosing the energy use of their largest customers. Google has also vowed to be carbon neutral, but unlike its rival Yahoo, for example, it has refused to reveal its overall carbon emissions.

The Times story goes on to say that Google sees the disclosure of its energy consumption as a breach of its competitive advantage.

Billionaire oilman-turned-wind-prospector T. Boone Pickens, like Schmidt, sees alternative energy as a business opportunity and an ideological endeavor second.

At Pickens' website, he makes clear his belief that through erecting wind farms in desolate, yet windy Midwestern states and focusing on cleaner energy, oil consumption can be pared down by a third within 10 years. Pickens' plan also touts the ability to bring jobs to poor, rural areas.

David Morris at AlterNet, though, believes the financial crisis and legislation favoring electric vehicles may hamper Pickens' plan.

While Gore's plan may ultimately have the largest price tag at $5 trillion over 10 years, it may also come the closest of the three initiatives in forcing Americans to take their medicine rather than being sold a bill of exotic goods.

Jason Pethokoukis at the U.S. News & World Report money blog, Capital Commerce, believes the plan is pie in the sky, though. 

"Gore's fantastic—in the truest sense of the word—proposal is almost unfathomably pricey and makes sense only if you think that not doing so almost immediately would result in an uninhabitable planet," Pethokoukis wrote in July.

The plan calls for a wholesale change in how American consumes energy. It calls for transforming the U.S. into a renewable energy juggernaut by focusing efforts to produce 100 percent of the nation's power from wind, solar, and geothermal energy.

While Schmidt and Pickens put profitability over responsibility and Gore speaks in apocalyptic tones, the final arbiter of any energy plans will be the American people.

In just a few months, high energy costs went from a sensitive campaign topic to a fairly tame talking point.

When Pickens unveiled his proposal in July crude oil prices hit a record-high of $147. The cost of a barrel of oil today? $67.

Pack up the station wagon, Clark, the family's driving to Walley World.


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