Why T. Boone Pickens Could Be the Best Hope for Wind Energy

The Texas oilman's 'green conversion' is all about business

T. Boone Pickens appears before a congressional panel.

T. Boone Pickens appears before a congressional panel.

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After all, the Pickens Plan is about more than just wind power. The Energy Department's best estimate suggests that wind is unlikely to generate more than a fifth of the nation's electricity by 2030. The switch to natural gas for transportation is essential to his plan, but it depends on the support of Detroit automakers as well as gas stations nationwide. More broadly, Pickens is pushing all kinds of homegrown energy, including solar power, biofuels, and additional offshore drilling.

If Pickens can help steer the country toward wind, it will be because of, in part, the tactics that helped him succeed in the 1980s. Back then, he was a self-styled outsider, a corporate buccaneer, railing against the big oil companies and the "good ol' boys" who ran them. They were complacent, in his view, and Pickens thought shareholders were getting a raw deal. He also saw the potential to make a profit for himself.

Quite a few critics (not to mention his targets) disapproved of his tactics, but he combined an analyst's savvy with a politician's ambition to shake up the corporate world. By the mid-1980s, Pickens had become an icon, appearing on the covers of national magazines. During one talk at Harvard Business School, recalls Irwin Jacobs, one of Pickens's longtime acquaintances and a fellow corporate raider, students were leaning over railings, jostling to catch sight of the oilman. "The younger generation looked at us like we were in a cowboy movie," Jacobs says. "You know, here are these gunslingers out there, shaking up the world."

Big Oil. Friends say Pickens is attempting an encore performance today. For renewable energy to go mainstream, the big oil and gas companies, as well as the large utilities, will need to be part of the transition. But "they are not good at finding stuff and being the lead on new discoveries," says Alan Edgar, an oil executive and Pickens's racquetball partner in the 1980s. Instead, they typically prefer to let others assume the risk.

Today, in fact, the majority of U.S. wind farms have been developed by specialized firms. Some utilities have taken the plunge, but it's the big oil companies that could provide the biggest boost. So far, their interest in wind has been mild. Some people close to Pickens speculate he is spending all this money simply to whet the appetite of Big Oil, in the hope of selling off the wind farm and making a tidy profit. Whether that's true or not, "he's going to force the big boys to play the game," says Jacobs.

The Pickens Plan faces serious challenges. Pickens's huge personal wealth—an estimated $3 billion—can help him with some (such as start-up costs). Perhaps the most daunting obstacle to making wind viable on a national, or even regional, scale is electricity transmission. Pickens wants to build his wind farm in west Texas, where the wind is strongest. But the potential customers live mainly in east Texas, in cities like Dallas and Houston. To move his electricity, Pickens will need to build 320 miles of transmission lines.

Thanks to a recent change in Texas law, Pickens has the necessary right of way to build them. The rest of the country won't have it so easy. The biggest boost would come from the federal government, which could designate national transmission corridors to move electricity across the country. It's a controversial issue, however, that will run into opposition on the state and local level.

Pickens's touch isn't always golden. In the 1980s and 1990s, his takeover bids often made him money, but in most cases he fell short of taking over a company. These failures, nevertheless, stemmed from the same quality that enabled his success—a ferocious competitiveness. "He would always hog the middle of the court," says Edgar of his racquetball matches with Pickens. "I had to hug the edges."

In his latest venture, the competitive spark is obvious. Pickens says he wants America to win "the energy war" against the Middle East and become energy independent. If that happens, it'll go down as his greatest takeover bid yet.