Many of us remember the Texas billionaire who was on TV screens almost as often as Obama and McCain during the 2008 presidential election. T. Boone Pickens promised a new era of energy independence, focused on natural gas and wind energy from the central United States. But after spending US$80 million promoting the “Pickens Plan,” he walked away from a huge project in the Texas panhandle in 2009, and at the end of the last year he decided wind was no longer a breeze when compared the decreasing cost of natural gas.
Plenty of theories surrounded Pickens’s agenda: he was really in it for water rights; he had more interest in natural gas; or logistically the plan to transfer energy from the rural middle to the populous U.S. coasts was doomed to flail. Meanwhile, another American billionaire who knows a few things about investing has arguably become the largest investor in the American wind power market.
In his annual letter to Berkshire Hathaway shareholders, Warren Buffett noted that one of his portfolio companies, MidAmerican Energy, leads all regulated utilities when it comes to wind energy. By the end of 2011, MidAmerican will generate over 2900 megawatts of wind generation. The Des Moines based utility, which has electricity and natural gas customers in Iowa, South Dakota, and Illinois, has invested or committed US$5.4 billion in wind power. Buffett points out that when it comes to investing in technologies like that of wind energy, MidAmerican has an advantage over its competitors: the utility retains all of its earnings, unlike most utilities that pay out most of their earnings to shareholders. Some may debate whether Buffett and MidAmerica are truly the leaders in wind power investment–NextEra Energy generates an estimated 8000 megawatts from wind, most of which is sold wholesale to other utilities.
Iowa especially benefits from the surge in wind investment. The Hawkeye State is now only second to Texas in wind power capacity. Yet, despite complaints that renewable technologies like that of wind are too expensive, Buffett has also pointed out that MidAmerican customers in Iowa cities like Des Moines pay one-third less per kilowatt hour of electricity than its largest rival. Iowa’s Public Utilities Commission also granted MidAmerican approval to install another 1000 megawatts of wind-generated power throughout the state. MidAmerican also has solid relationships with local universities and environmental advocacies in Iowa, further proving that the choice between jobs or cleaner forms of energy is a false debate.
Indeed, MidAmerican pipelines transport 8% of the United States’ natural gas supply, so quick pronouncements that Buffett is a shining green knight are premature. Nevertheless, the Oracle of Omaha clearly believes in wind, and with the price of fossil based fuels poised to go no where but up this year, look for Buffett and Berkshire Hathaway shareholders to do even better next year–remember B.H. acquired Burlington Northern Santa Fe, too. Renewable energy and rail may prove to be savvy investment picks in the coming year.