Last week right before the news broke that the venture capitalists from Kleiner Perkins and clean energy investor T. Boone Pickens had quietly funded a 3-year-old fuel-efficient car startup called V-Vehicle, I had just started working on a post about Pickens titled, “What Have You Done For Me Lately?” The gist of the story was (and I still largely believe) that Pickens has been really successful on basically one thing so far: getting a lot of attention and educating people. Bringing Americans’ attention to the issue of clean power is very laudable.
But when it comes to the Pickens Plan itself, which proposes using natural gas vehicles and wind to replace a dependence on foreign oil, I can’t claim that it has been equally successful, or will be as promising, as so many adoring posts like this one suggest. The Pickens Plan might have X-number of citizen followers, but natural gas vehicles have not gained much traction among those that matter when it comes to spawning an industry — carmakers, the federal government handing out stimulus money, and entrepreneurs developing vehicle technology. The bulk of the attention right now is focused on plug-in vehicles, and to a lesser extent, next-gen biofuels. And natural gas vehicles only produce about 20 percent less greenhouse gas emissions than a standard gas vehicle, which is about the same as corn-based ethanol.
While wind is a less risky sell and will make up a significant portion of renewable energy portfolios in the U.S., Picken’s own wind farm, which was going to cost $10 billion for 2,700 wind turbines that would supply 4,000 megawatts in Texas, is now in limbo. Pickens was supposed to start construction of it in 2010, but said earlier this year that the earliest that construction could start would be 2011, and even that could be optimistic. “We’ll see what happens in two to three years,” Pickens said earlier this year at a conference in reference to his wind farm construction schedule.
So my original post last week was basically asking, “Is this it?” Will Pickens’ legacy be that he promotes an alternative-fuel vehicle tech that doesn’t really take off, sits on a dormant wind site that emerged when the markets were too poor to fund it, but does a lot of good by educating a lot of people?
But the news that Pickens joined forces with the Kleiner folks and invested in an efficient gas-fueled vehicle surprised me. And I think the investment is a good sign that Pickens is willing to do a whole lot more and break out of the Pickens Plan box. While Pickens tried to raise speculation that V-Vehicle could one day be a natural gas-powered vehicle to a group of Canadian reporters, the companies’ other investors have clearly said it will be gas-powered for a good many years and natural gas is only one potential option down the road. My bet is that Pickens knows that but is looking to invest in other alt-fuel vehicle areas beyond natural gas. While I’m not sure we’ll be seeing an official revamp of the Pickens Plan, I’m glad to see that he’s willing to support other alternative car options. If there’s one thing the 81-year-old hedge fund manager still knows how to do, it’s to learn and try new things.
Image courtesy of the Center for American Progress and creative commons.