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Fui Tsikata /MEDILL

Elizabeth Fischer/MEDILL 

T. Boone Pickens at a town hall meeting at the Grand Ballroom, Navy Pier.  

Pickens’ crusade a boon for renewable energy

by Fui Tsikata
Oct 14, 2008

One person not running for office but whose visage is as prominent as a presidential candidate’s is T. Boone Pickens. The multibillionaire has turned to the airwaves to promote an energy plan that makes natural gas and wind its centerpieces.

Pickens spoke Tuesday at Chicago's Navy Pier as part of a series of town hall-style meetings he is holding across the country to promote his plan for increasing the production and use of natural gas and wind energy. He has also visited Albuquerque, N.M., Fargo, N.D. and Austin, Texas among other cities.

Pickens was here to present a plan which at first glance appears wholly altruistic and is designed to address U.S. dependence on foreign oil.

“It’s not for me,” Pickens said. “It’s for my kids and grandkids and for your kids and grandkids. It’s for this country.”

Pickens spoke without a prepared text and advocated the need to rely less on foreign oil. Using a white board to illustrate—between personal anecdotes of why he is on this crusade, and accounts of meetings with dignitaries such as Al Gore and the two presidential candidates—he presented a two-part solution. Pickens said the U.S. must use more natural gas to power vehicles, particularly heavy-duty trucks, and use wind power to replace the capacity that will be lost by natural gas.

Renewable energy and Pickens seem like an odd couple. After all, his widely known profile is antithetical to the image projected by the alternative energy crowd. The 80-year-old former geologist is worth an estimated $3.1 billion, according to Forbes magazine. According to the magazine, Pickens made most of his money in the oil industry. He is now chairman and chief executive officer of Dallas-based BP Capital LLC, an energy trading partnership he founded. Though some question his motives, he pledged $2 billion to building wind farms in Texas.

Moreover, Pickens has an estimated $237 million worth of holdings in Clean Energy Fuels Corp., a company that owns natural gas stations across the U.S. Increasing the use of natural gas as the fuel of choice for trucks, Pickens stands to add to his net worth.

Pickens has identified Illinois as one of the states in the “Wind belt,” an area that stretches from Texas to North Dakota.

If his audacious plans work, Illinois and the Midwest could benefit greatly from investment in wind farms. According to Wind for Illinois, an advocacy group promoting wind energy, the state can now produce 700 megawatts of electricity from wind- enough to power up to 200,000 homes. The group anticipates that there will be continued growth in wind energy systems. "Wind turbines will soon be as common to the Illinois landscape as country roads, silos and combines," the group states in a promotional piece.

A 2007 Illinois law requires that, by 2013, eight percent of power purchased and distributed to customers must be wind power. The law also requires that, by 2030, utilities generate 25 percent of electricity from renewable sources, with 75 percent of that from wind.

Furthermore, utilities must look first to producers in Illinois to buy wind energy before considering other states that sell wind energy.

If T. Boone Pickens has his way, wind farms will become a fixture from Sweetwater to Fargo, and cheap wind energy will power the Midwest and the rest of the U.S. for decades to come.