Black and White Program

Neil Young and T. Boone Pickens: Brothers in Turbine

August 8th, 2008 by John Eastman

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What do Neil Young and T. Boone Pickens have in common? In many aspects of their lives, not very much. One is an icononic acoustic rock musician, who has been writing creative material for over forty years, and is widely known for his liberal political stances. The latter is a well established oil tycoon and founder of Mesa Petroleum, an oil and gas conglomerate that generated huge profits for its investors in the 80’s and 90’s.

Their lives do not directly intersect, however their independent projects both involve solving energy problems through the use of turbines. Their respective methods to address the energy issue is reflective of those that both have used in the past with much success: a grassroots approach and “big business” approach.

Neil Young is a musician and songwriter who gained fame in the 1960’s with the bands Buffalo Springfield and Crosby, Stills, Nash, and Young. He produced distinctive music in the 70’s playing off of political and folk lure, and in the 80’s and 90’s created an impressive body of work. He continues to create original music and films, often rooted in the world events as they influence him. His appeal is worldwide with a loyal following of baby boomers, as well as new younger fans. Now in his sixties, he is as productive as ever and has survived a serious brain aneurysm a few years ago.

Chair of BP capital management T. Boone Pickens is currently worth an estimated 3 billion dollars. He began his career as a geologist for Phillips Petroleum, then became a wildcatter, and eventually founded a small oil company that became the basis for the mega oil firm Mesa Petroleum. His model for growth was keenly knitted acquisitions of undervalued companies, sometimes acquiring firms that dwarfed the size of his own company. Known in the 80’s as a corporate raider and, notoriously, as a green mailer, his celebrity grew to the degree that he graced the cover of Time Magazine in 1985. In recent years, Pickens has become politically active, supporting G.W. Bush with significant financial resources, which has generated controversy in some instances.

So how do the lives of these two very successful and dissimilar beings intersect? They both have new ideas for generating energy, albeit their approach and projects are very different.

With the aid of several engineers, Neil Young is working on converting automobiles to run on electricity and biofuels. His first project entailed converting a 1959 Lincoln Continental Mark IV (renamed Linc-Volt) to run on biofuels and electricity. The company, also named LINC VOLT, touts its mission as to inspire a clean automotive propulsion technology that reduces demand for petro-fuels and subsides the need for countries to go to war over energy issues. Their objective is a zero emissions automobile that eliminates road-side refueling, and one that generates power to the owner’s home when connected, possibly creating an income stream. UQM Technologies, a partner in the venture designed the propulsion system. Other partners include a water Fuel Cell firm Meyer and Perrone Robotics.

In a recent Charlie Rose interview, Young revealed some of the ideas, approaches, and thoughts — not only about bio-electric automobiles– but about the generation of energy and the using of energy grids. Mr. Young’s efforts, on the surface, consist of converting and making automobiles that run on electricity and biofuels. But a deeper look into his media statements provides a much bigger idea: reversing the use of the power grid. He elaborates “we need to eliminate roadside fueling. A car that cranks out its own fuel… one that you take home and plug it into your house and not take energy from the grid that put energy into the grid. If everyone can link to this, there would be a distributed power system.” Another interesting point is his belief that his freedom from corporate structures enable him to take risks that major car companies will not, due to fear of failure. He has stated that “[automobile manufacturers] are not as free as I am. […] free to do anything. […] You can have a bad idea and go down in stature. They are constrained. They are in these rooms… in these structures, and there are brilliant people in there working within a structure. The structure could be interpreted as being a jail. You can have a bad idea and do down in status. For me, it doesn’t matter. I’m not scared to fail. […] I would love to succeed.”

Mr. Young points out that his goal is to be part of a solution, not necessarily become the only solution. Young plans a movie about the project, aptly entitled ‘Linc-Volt’.

T. Boone Pickens’ approach can be summarized in one word: big. He has made big plans, requiring big money and big help needed from government and investors, not unlike his past business efforts in oil and gas exploration. The Pickens Plan is centered around developing wind farms and electric production. He is starting with a 1,000 megawatt farm in Texas, and planning to hit 4,000 megawatts by placing wind turbines on investor land from Texas to Canada for generation of energy and profits. The effort hopes to be producing 4,000 megawatts by 2015 and needs substantial governmental assistance to provide transmission lines to carry the energy created by the turbines. On the firm’s website, Pickens notes that in 1970, the U.S. imported 24% of its oil, and now that number is 70%, with costs rising to produce more oil. He states that oil production has peaked in 2005, and that more foreign oil is not the solution to the U.S. energy problems.

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