Energy Visionaries: T. Boone Pickens and Shai Agassi

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August 30, 2008

By Bob Difley

Sometimes it takes a certain indefinable caliber of a person, one who not only sees the big picture but have the chutzpa, vision, and means to go after it. Such is the case of T. Boone Pickens, who is changing the energy landscape with his grandiose plans for alternative energy sources, one of which is to build vast wind farms to generate energy from our windiest areas, like Texas. Another is to rally people to his Pickens Plan and the power of numbers to influence the new president and the congress “to make major changes towards cleaner, cheaper and domestic energy resources.” As he says on his Web site,
“America is in a hole and it’s getting deeper every day. We import 70% of our oil at a cost of $700 billion a year – four times the annual cost of the Iraq war.
“I’ve been an oil man all my life, but this is one emergency we can’t drill our way out of. But if we create a new renewable energy network, we can break our addiction to foreign oil.”
And then there is also Shai Agassi, who plans to bring electric cars into the mainstream faster than any major car manufacturer thinks possible. And it looks like he might just pull it off, if it’s any indication of the number and status of the people jumping aboard his bandwagon. In an article in the September issue of Wired Magazine, writer Daniel Roth follows Agassi from his electrifying speech in December 2006 at the Saban Center for Middle East Policy Conference on how to get the world off oil.
At 38 he was the youngest of 60 prominent invitees (Bill Clinton, former Israeli prime minister Shimon Peres, and Supreme Court Justice Stephen Breyer among others) and he presented his audacious plan to install a nationwide grid of charging stations for his electric cars, which he would sell cheap and make money off drivers’ electricity usage and from leasing the expensive batteries—instead of selling them along with the car—an idea no one had thought of yet.
His working model figures that the average driver would pay about $1,050 per year for electricity and battery depreciation compared to $3,000, the current driver’s annual average for gasoline at $4 a gallon (15,000 miles at 20 mpg).
Agassi also had the money to back his plan, having sold his software company for $400 million. But he needed somewhere to set up a trial, a small island nation, where a nationwide charging station infrastructure was feasible as a test. Working with an enthusiastic Shimon Peres, Israel seemed like a good choice for his initial set up (maybe not an island, but surrounded by hostile countries on three sides and the Mediterranean Sea on the other). Today the building of the infrastructure is well underway, and another test is in the works in Denmark. Keep an eye on this project, it just might change the way we drive in a much shorter time frame than anyone thought.
The more I look at world changing plans, electric vehicles (EVs) seem to be at the top of my list, though I think we should continue to pursue all modes of fuel and energy generation. The mission and goals that personal transportation in America–if not the world–will embrace in the future, could be labeled the Transportation Triumvirate (TT): (1) Reducing dependence on foreign oil, (2) Reducing use of fossil fuels (America uses a quarter of the world’s oil), and (3) The creation of clean, cheap, and efficient vehicles and fuel (we are far behind the European and Asian miles-per-gallon standards).
EVs fit into this TT plan even better than hybrids and diesels. Here’s how:
• Central energy production for charging batteries (i.e.: power plants, wind farms, and solar arrays) is much more economical than the energy produced by individual vehicles burning their onboard fuel supply.
• Fossil fuels are needed only for central electricity production in coal fueled power plants (which can all be set up to both scrub and sequester CO2 before it reaches the air) and from solar, wind, and other alternative energy sources.
• Pollutants, particulates, and greenhouse gasses of EVs are zero.
• Noise level is next to nothing–more coming from the tires on the road than from the motor.
So what are the negatives, or problems? Two major ones, when once resolved, will push EVs forward like Usain Bolt out of the starting blocks. First is the battery. They are expensive, bulky, heavy, and take too long to charge. But there is a lot of venture capital money flowing into breakthrough battery technology, and improvements are coming quickly. The next generation lithium batteries show much potential and new concepts are in the works to replace batteries with a newer technology. Secondly, charging time is currently in hours instead of minutes, which works for those who commute each day the number of miles that is within the range of the EV’s battery. Drive to work, drive home, plug it in, charge it overnight.
But what about those that do not return home every night, like us RVers. That’s where Agazzi’s charging station infrastructure comes into play. His plan is for charging stations as ubiquitous as gas stations, battery exchange stations (much like swapping barbeque propane tanks), and the development of short term charging solutions. Grid power would benefit also, since most at-home charging would occur overnight when electricity demand is low. Old, spent, batteries would be recycled, so nothing goes into land fills or produces toxic waste.
Grid electricity generation would be the key to it all, and could go in different ways. Solar and wind could supply part of a regional power plant’s needs, reducing both coal use and the distance fuel had to be moved to get to the power plant. Nuclear would have to be considered, plant safety as well as disposal of nuclear waste. New, small scale, regional nuclear power generators are being built in China, without the size or capacity to wreak havoc on the neighborhood in case of accidents or terrorist attacks. But mainly, going to centrally generated electrical power instead of individually fueled vehicles would reduce our need for oil immediately, since power plants do not use oil for generating electricity.

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  1. Pingback: Just as with Dirty Diapers, Change is Coming

  2. Gary Hauck

    Living here in Kansas we have our share of wind, possibly to much. Everytime a wind farm is proposed it gets shot down by the lobbyists of energy, kansas government and big farmers. We have a couple of small wind farms in the state how they got there is beyond me.Mr Pickens gives a good talk but until the public gets a different mindset it will never happen.

  3. Fred – I think there will have to be a lot more gas/propane filling stations or “we” (generic term) will not go for it if we have to look too hard to find one. But if the vehicles start to appear, the gas/propane stations will soon follow. And as for gasoline, it’s potential energy is hard to beat with anything else. That’s why, regardless of the effects on the environment, rising prices, and our enslavement to the OPEC nations’ supply, we just don’t want to give it up. Maybe gas prices will have to over $8 a gallon and OPEC reduces supply.
    But, Yippee for $1/watt solar panels. I’d fill my roof up with them. Wait a minute, my roof is already covered with solar panels.
    I think Nanosolar is one of the companies making those panels. Things are happening in the alternative energy field so rapidly I can’t keep up with them all. Look at my blog for this coming Saturday (9/7) on a new invention for making cement with zero CO2 emissions. Making cement is one of the biggest carbon dioxide polluting manufacturing operations that there is.

  4. Jim L – Thanks for your comments and support. I think that one of the big problems with fuel cells is also the infrastructure to get them refueled. We Americans are so spoiled that if we can’t get our hydrogen tanks filled at every gas station and in the same time it takes to fill a gasoline vehicle, we won’t consider it. Therefore, to build 170,000 hydrogen-fueling pumps at the nation’s gas stations will take some time–after the technology proves feasible and not cost prohibitive. But let’s move towards that goal anyway as it seems like one of the best of all solutions.

  5. Fred

    Bob D. and Jim Burnett,

    First. thank you both for that nice compliment about behavior modification. I should add that we also must be responsible for our own actions. Up your speed, and up go your costs.

    Two points;

    1) Low cost natural gas and LPG carburetor kits and pressure tanks are somewhat readily available for many cars (just Google for them). But a word about my own experience – you won’t get the same good performance as you would for gasoline. There could be as much as a 10% decrease in horsepower.

    2) I use 500 watts worth of solar panels on the roof of my RV to charge 4 top-of-the-line deep cycle batteries for when I boondock. I was just wondering if this idea could be applied to electric powered RVs in general to assist in charging the drive batteries when the sun do shine. (Yes, do shine).

    But don’t buy just yet. New technology solar cells are showing up for thin film, light weight cell panels that are more efficient and a lot cheaper. Old tech silicon cells cost $10 per watt, the new stuff costs $1 per watt. Only problem is right now the new cell are in such demand that the manufacturers can’t keep up. But, that’s good!


  6. Jim L

    Keep your chin up as you are doing a great service in making people at least think and discuss the issue. There are many things that could be accomplished with little or no effect on our lifestyles. We need a government with some semblance of leadership. Electrify the railroads and put the transcontinental freight back on the rails. Electric trolleys and light rail systems in the cities. The transcontinental railroad was contructed with hand labor in a shorter length of time than it now takes to contruct a few miles of light rail in a major city. We as a population are going to feel a great deal more pain before we react and get over the idea that we are what we drive. Electric cars for commuting makes such sense. Technology that is available today can produce a vehicle that will travel 50 miles round trip at reasonable speeds, recharge overnight and be ready for the next morning.
    Now on the subject of fuel cells. The writer was involved in fuel cell research some forty years ago, thus I have some knowledge of the inner wokings of same. I am not so bold as to say that they are not in the cards for one solution but their use for private transportation will require a great deal more research and development. Currently the cost of both the cells and the PURE hydrogen source is just too high.

  7. Hi Jim – Natural gas as well as battery power for RV size vehicles is already feasible, however there are other problems. Most of the large gas or electric vehicles are either busses or trucks (such as city garbage trucks) that return to a fase each night and can be refueled or charged for the next day. For batter power to work with RVs three things would have to happen: (1) Battery exchange stations would have to become part of the national infrastructure where you could swap out a depleted battery for a fully-charged battery, or (2) Battery technology would have to advance to the point where charging was a matter of minutes instead of hours, and (3) There would have to be enough demand from RVers to purchase electric vehicles for the manufacturers to see a profit in manufacturing them. The perfect future would be campgrounds that would have electric charging stations at each site, since batteries now take hours to charge, but not so extreme a notion since it most likely would be just adding some kind of meter to the already existing electrical hookup so they would know how much to charge. For gas, it would require having natural gas tanks as common as gas stations. But for car drivers that return home every night, they could tap into the existing natural gas supply (unless you are all electric or LPG powered). Bottom line, the technology is there, but the infrastructure is the limiting factor–plus the expense, though much of the expense can be relieved by existing tax credits and rebates. Go to to see existing tax incentives for all forms of alternative fuel vehicles. Thanks, Jim, for your comments.

  8. Fred makes a great point in his comment above: “I’m not going to stop RVing, but I have modified my behavior to compensate for the times.”

    If all of us would “modify our behavior” in similar ways, we could make a difference. I know that conservation won’t solve our energy problem, but it’s part of the overall solution, and one we can achieve immediately. I saw recent statistics about a dramatic drop in gasoline consumption this summer compared to previous years – a factor in the recent decline in price at the pump.

    I heard Mr. Pickens in a radio interview yesterday and he made some good points. Natural gas isn’t a long-term solution for our energy needs, but his plan for rapid development of wind and natural gas deserves a serious look as a largely domestic source that can come on-line faster than other options. He is promoting natural gas as a “bridge” to tide us over until other technologies can be developed and deployed.

    I’d hope that natural gas could be one answer for larger vehicles such as RV’s, for which battery power may not be feasible in the immediate future. A growing number of cities are converting their bus fleets to natural gas, which suggests that the technology for such large vehicles is already available. Perhaps that’s one more example of how Fred’s “modifying our behavior” can be applied.

    Thanks for bringing good information to our attention, Bob. The energy issue is a major one for the travel industry as well as for our economy as a whole.

  9. David – Thanks again for your informative comments. Your statement, “It would be much easier to retrofit today’s cars with a smaller engine directly driving a generator charging a battery pack and electric motor. The whole package could replace the existing engine for size and bolt up directly to the existing transmission. As an example, a 20hp electric motor produces more torque and driving power than a 150hp gasoline engine. Replacing that 150 hp engine with a 40hp engine to charge the batteries and power the motors would immediately cut that vehicles fuel usage by 2/3rds,” makes sense to me. I’ve considered this step and see good reasons, such as” (1) It would bring car-sized electric motors into the world of mass production and therefore lower prices, (2) It would get big, in-efficient gas engines off the road, (3) It would get extended use out of the 200 plus million gas vehicles already on the road, (4) Any neighborhood garage could do the work, and (5) Government subsidies, as they have done with every developing game-changing technology, would take the financial bite out of the conversion, just as oil subsidies have done and utility companies have done with home solar systems. Here are what I think the problems are: (1) A schematic and plans would have to be developed for every year and make of car on the road, which would take time (though not impossible if the right incentives were sent to all the car manufacturers), (2) It would take a whole lot more garages or conversion-specific establishments to complete the work in a reasonable length of time than are now available. I don’t think either one is plan destroyer, but it would take great effort–and I think it would be worth it.

  10. George Miller wrote on Aug. 30th, “I still think the ultimate is Hydrogen fuel cells.” You are probably right, unfortunately we need a few steps in between. And it’s hard to tell at this stage which alternate stage will prove the most effective and cost efficient. I think we need to continue to pursue all means of energy, and see where the market takes it. Those ideas that seem to be the best will reap the benefits of government subsidies, venture capital, and company growth. I also think we are entering an amazing stage in the changeover from fossil fuels to whatever is the next Big Think. I only hope I live long enough to see it happen. Thanks for your comments.

  11. Fred – Regarding your statement, “I’m not going to stop RVing, but I have modified my behavior to compensate for the times,” I think is a statement–or mission, if you like–that all of us should consider. It’s been proven that if you change behavior or a habit and hold to a new behavior or habit for three weeks, the new behavior/habit will become your new one. Much of what we do that is wasteful is purely a habit that has outlived its effectiveness. If people would take the three weeks to change, they would be surprised how easily it was accomplished, and how little they miss the old habits. And your personal experience with an mpg gain of about 50% should be enough incentive for any skeptic. And it proves that we RVers don’t have to give up the lifestyle we love, and we can still be responsible citizens and help out the environment and energy crunch while doing it. Thanks. Bob

  12. Hey Texas Brad – Always entertaining to get your comments and your take on the subject from a Texan and one who holds natural gas leases. For the record, we use about 1,607,000 million cu ft. of natural gas monthly, of which 290,000 million cu ft is imported–about 18%. Almost 90% of the imported gas comes from Canada, with about two-thirds of the remainder coming from Trinidad. About 41% of our natural gas usage goes to gas fired power plants to provide electricity to the national grid.
    And as far as the liberals and greenies who “Don’t want drill sites here, don’t want pipelines here, don’t want compressor stations, Drillers make noise, use water, trucks increase traffic, etc.” I can’t imagine why.

  13. Fred

    Bob Difley,

    Like me, you seem to feel less than encouraged by what you observe around you every day. I read a comment this morning about small U.S. cars manufactured in the 1970s. They did not sell because the bulk of the American drivers wanted fancy, fast and fuel-guzzling vehicles.

    I pull a 2005, 12,000 lb (more like 16,000 lb loaded) fifth wheel with my 2005 Dodge Ram 2500 Cummings diesel. I consistanly get 22 mpg normal and 15 mpg pulling.

    Unfortunately, the process to remove the sulfur put the value of diesel higher than premium. I bought my first Dodge Cummings diesel when diesel fuel was the lowest price fuel.

    Anyway, during my travels starting this year, I am driving 55-60 to get that 15 mpg. For the last 20 years of touring, before this year, I would buzz along at 70-75 and got 9-10 mpg.

    I have been observing that RVs and other camping vehicles that had passed me on the road, would just be signing in at the same campground when I arrived just a few minutes later. Does that make any sense? Oh well, you know what I mean.

    I have the luxury of being retired, am in no big hurry, and only travel about 200 miles per day. I’m not going to stop RVing, but I have modified my behavior to compensate for the times.

    I am spoiled and I kinda’ like it. I am very independant, and I won’t be complacent nor ignorant of the changing conditions. I guess it is my survival technique – which I learned from 20 years in the military.

    I gather by your credentials that you address some of this blog’s concerns out there in California on a more localized basis. On that scale, you reach fewer people, but it might mean you have a higher percentage of encouraged respondents.

    I don’t expect a drastic change in the American attitude during my few remaining years, but I do believe it will be ingrained into the next generations toward ultra-conservation and non-poluting times.

    We just need to irradicate the current entities of the lousy leadership that accepts the lobbying for and promotes big business over us individual voters. But, that will take a complete turnover in Congress and the administration.

    Let’s start now by voting toward the direction to get back to the principles of the Constitution.

    ttyl, Fred

  14. TXBrad

    1. T Boone is out for T.Boone & his investors. Check how much stock of his “the no drill NANCY ” has !
    2. The 3rd part of his plan is “Drill Now ” ?? Gas drilling is what Oil companies also do. The media & liberals all have us geared up against inporting OIL ; check the facts as to how much Natural Gas America imports from these same countries! A new $14million gas unloading facility just opened in Houston.
    3. I live over the Barnet Shale here in Tx. And, yes my lease gas is going to Market.
    However, there are the crying liberals here too. Don’t want drill sites here, don’t want pipelines here, don’t want compressor stations, Drillers make noise, use water, trucks increase traffic, etc. There best line is ” possible” future enviormental impact ” ! “possible safety issues” There are more plane crashes than wellpipelines accidents. Same folks are doing a good job putting the air lines out business. Big news ” AA grounded GAS guzzlering MD-80 ” ( i didn’t know MD-80 used Gas Gasoline )
    4. It leaked out : Windmills are only 10% efficient when we need the most power in the summer here for AC as “little wind @ high temperatures” !!!!!!!!! Da ! T.Boone’s windmill plan is for us tax payers to provide 50 to 150 BILLION $ The Democrats have had the House & Senate for 2 years now & gas ( heating oil), jet fuel all doubled & all they have done for ALT fuel is bought votes from farmers for Bio-fuel.
    and so it goes TxBrad

  15. Bob Difley

    Fred – Thanks again for your comments. And I couldn’t agree with you more that most American drivers are unwilling to scale down in any way to ease the energy crunch. They resist slowing down from 70 to 55, still want to drive their big SUVs, will not consider alternative vehicles like electric cars unless they have the same range of a gas fueled car and are able to fuel up at any gas station in the same amount of time it takes to fill a gas tank, drive fewer miles, join car pools, etc. It still amazes me how many cars I see on the road with only one person in it. Where I am now, I pass the local high school a couple times a week as school is beginning, and you know what I see? A string of cars, mostly SUVs, lined up to get to the school with a mother driving and a student riding. I do not see kids riding bikes, taking the bus, or several kids riding in a car pool. It seems no one wants to adjust their lifestyle or habits to adjust to changing times, even when it seems like such common sense.

  16. Fred

    Hi Bob,

    I see you are determined to stay at it. You WILL get through to some. Let’s just hope those that are wiulling to get involved will pass these ideas on to people in their address books.

    I like the ambition and passion of the young, rich Shai Agassi. I’ll be looking forward to reports from Tel Aviv in the near future.

    And, you and I are already members of T. Boone’s efforts, so I don’t need to say any more about that.

    The hardest thing to do now is convince the 191,000,000 U.S. licensed drivers to change their apathetic attitude. Well, before I catch any flack, maybe not ALL of the drivers are apathetic.

    So far of the people I’ve been contacting and talking to, only a handful have responded positively. Most have their own agenda right now and I think the biggest thing in their lives, beside family and earning a living, would be the upcoming national election.

    Hang in there, you’re doing a much needed, but unrewarding service.


  17. George Miller

    Bob, I wrote you recently about the use of Metal Hydrides to store Hydrogen. Now I see that Folded Metal Organics are a superior method of storing large quantities of Hydrogen cost effectively. Producing Hydrogen is another matter. The final answer will be some form of fuel cell that uses Hydrogen and generates water. Cummings with their smart generator technology is well advanced for electric motors for each wheel of and RV or for that matter trucks. T Boon is promoting Drill, Drill, Drill and I totally agree with him. Anyone who wants to mortgage the US supply of energy to technology that has not yet been invented is a much bigger risk taker than I. Petroleum is also indispensable for a lot of products that cannot be made by wind, solar or even Nuclear. Plastics for one, medicine and lubricants for others. I say, full speed for Nuclear, Solar if the infrastructure is available or afordable, and wind if people can stand the noise. Meanwhile, I still think the utimate is Hydrogen fuel cells. Nothing meaningful within 10 years. George Miller

  18. Merl and Bob – Seems to me that if I saw an opportunity that looked like it was better then what was currently in use, such as using natural gas (CNG) to fuel vehicles, and using wind turbines to generate electricity, that is what I would want to put my money in. Are you saying that being a wealthy investor eliminates you from doing something good for the country if it also makes you money? The facts are indisputable, CNG is cleaner and cheaper than gasoline or diesel, and wind energy is cleaner also than coal for generating electricity. If T. Boone sees the writing on the wall for oil and decides to invest in CNG and wind, I’m solidly behind him, even if he does make money. Seems Carl Pope is also. And he’s the head of the environmentalist Sierra Club. However, I would agree that CNG is an interim fuel until we can develop electric vehicles and enough clean energy sources (solar, wind, geothermal, etc.) to go to that next step. But I’m happy, even ecstatic, that investors and venture capitalists feel that there is money to be made in clean energy and getting us off oil–and are willing to put their own money into it.

  19. In all honesty, Mr. Pickens does have a few ideas right. However, I strongly disagree with his interim strategy.

    Yes, we need things like Wind Farms and Solar Farms for electrical generation, and obviously they need to be built where there is a steady supply of energy for these farms, both on land and, where possible, at sea. These have the strongest advantage of causing no air pollution and could easily be established to cause next to no pollution of any kind short of the comparative microscopic amounts of lubricants and dusts off of the mechanisms themselves. (Whoever claims that these farms are completely pollution-free are deluded. All moving mechanisms need lubricants and are subject to ordinary wear, even the brakes that limit the rotation speed of the gigantic rotors in the wind farms.)

    On the other hand, Pickens himself is suggesting converting cars over to Natural Gas to wean us off of gasoline and diesel; a technology that does nothing but foster a dependence on a different form of petroleum obtained by drilling (and is probably Mr. Pickens most plentiful product.) It would be much easier to retrofit today’s cars with a smaller engine directly driving a generator charging a battery pack and electric motor. The whole package could replace the existing engine for size and bolt up directly to the existing transmission. As an example, a 20hp electric motor produces more torque and driving power than a 150hp gasoline engine. Replacing that 150 hp engine with a 40hp engine to charge the batteries and power the motors would immediately cut that vehicles fuel usage by 2/3rds. This eliminates the need for rushing a massive new infrastructure into production at a probable cost of billions to the taxpayer.

    Before you say that what I suggest is already being done by GM, look again. The Chevy Volt, due out in 2010, is a massively over-engineered piece of technology using a lot of technology that is essentially wasted. The technology I’m talking about has been used for almost a century by America’s railroads. The Volt is going to use a custom-designed 70hp 3-cylinder engine (designed at a cost of millions) and so much computer control that the starting price of the Volt is going to be almost $35,000, well out of the reach of the people who really need this vehicle! A much simpler package could be designed to use already-existing smaller engines (say, motorcycle engines?) and off-the-shelf components with only a need to design mounting plates to the various transaxle and transmission housings and perhaps fit onto existing motor mounts at a comparitive cost of less than $2000 per vehicle; maybe less than that if you are credited for the old, bigger engine.

    My point is, while his concepts are valid, his execution and that of Shai Agassi are not, for the short term. There are better and cheaper ways. We just need someone to prove it NOW.

  20. Bob Smith

    Yes we need to look an other sorces of fuel. We started with whale oil and wooden torches, As a kid I rember seeing gas being burned at the well head because it was trash gas and now we heat our house with this fuel. Ye we have lots of wind our in this area and it should be used. Myroblem is with T. Boon only. bob

  21. Jim

    Bob –

    Thanks for sharing some information on a subject that impacts all of us. As a nation, we clearly need to be looking at a variety of options for our energy needs. I welcome the interest in and awareness of options being generated by Mr. Pickens’ ideas. Solving the energy problem is going to take some serious capital investment from people such as Mr. Pickens who have the dollars and influence to make things happen.

    I’m certainly not an expert on natural gas as a fuel for vehicles, including RV’s. However, the one plus of our current energy situation is that we’re seeing much more interest in research and development, and things which didn’t seem possible even a year ago are now getting some serious attention.

  22. Bob Smith

    I wouldn trust T. Boon with a sack of trash. He’s out for him self. I agree completely with meri Bell. I would say more but must keep my thoughts clean. T Boon is so green he wants to ship our water to Dallas and sell it to them. Bob Smith Fritch, TX


  23. Merl Bell

    MR. Difley,
    Great. Such a “green” guy this T Boone Pickens. Anything for the good of the country AND HIS BANK ACCOUNT. MR. PIckens is THE major stockholder in the two US suppliers of vehicle natural gas fuel! So what ever he does is tainted by his desire to get RICHER. When he donates his shares in the two vehicle gas companies to some worthy and non-associated charity, I will begin to listen to him. Until than: PHOOEY! Also, maybe you are not aware of it, but none of the current manufactured automobiles that run on unleaded gasoline can use Mr. Pickens concept. The conpression ratio is too low to burn cleanly and will only cause MORE polution. PLEASE GET YOPU FACTS STRAIGHT.

    PS I really loke this Blog, but if you produce more of this kind of trash, I will request being reemoved from your address book.

    Merl Bell
    Bedford, VA