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photo: San Luis Obispo County

In The New York Times on Thursday, I wrote about a United States Department of Energy official affiming that loan guarantees for nuclear power projects would continue in the wake of the Japanese reactor disaster. He also said loans for a “significant” number of large renewable energy projects would be issued in the coming months:

With many riveted on Japan’s reactor crisis, the head of the  Department of Energy’s loan guarantee program has affirmed that it will continue to finance nuclear projects in the United States.

“Assuming there is a desire in the Capitol to move forward, nuclear remains an important part of the energy mix,” Jonathan Silver, executive director of the Energy Department’s loan programs office, said on Wednesday in a presentation at the Cleantech Forum conference in San Francisco.

“I point out here that the technology at use in the project we financed is quite different from the ones that have been affected by Japan,” he added. “Nonetheless, we obviously take this quite seriously.”

Mr. Silver’s remarks followed Congressional testimony in Washington by Energy Secretary Steven Chu and Gregory B. Jaczko, chairman of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission. Dr. Chu said that the Obama administration continued to support nuclear energy, noting the president had requested that $36 billion be appropriated for the nuclear loan guarantee program.

During his presentation, Mr. Silver, however, focused on renewable energy.

“In 2010, the loan program was the largest financier of renewable energy program in the world with the exception of China,” said Mr. Silver, a former venture capitalist. “We invested more money into clean energy than the 10 largest project finance groups in the world, public or private sector combined, except China.”

As financing for multibillion-dollar renewable energy projects dried up in the recession and bankers became leery of taking risks on new technologies, solar and wind developers have come to depend on the loan guarantee program.

“The sun shines and the wind blows in red and blue states,” Mr. Silver said. “We are agnostic on the topic of geography and we are agnostic on the topic of technology other than is it innovative and potentially transformative at scale.”

The loan guarantee program has come under fire from all sides, with some green energy advocates complaining that the Energy Department has been slow to hand out cash for projects. Congressional Republicans, meanwhile, have questioned whether the department has spent its money wisely and have moved to cut funding for the $71 billion program.

An audit released last week by the Energy Department’s inspector general found that poor record-keeping made it difficult to evaluate some loan decisions.

Mr. Silver did not address the audit on Wednesday but noted that although the loan guarantee program began under the Bush administration in 2005, it was not funded until 2008 and had only 35 employees when he became executive director in early 2009.

You can read the rest of the story here.

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In The New York Times on Wednesday, I write about a survey of U.S. utility industry executives and insiders conducted by Black & Veatch:

American utility industry executives see nuclear energy as the most promising carbon-free power source, are skeptical of climate change science, and are uncertain about the future, according to a report to be issued Thursday by Black & Veatch, the engineering and consulting giant.

The survey of 329 executives, managers and engineers, which Black & Veatch shared with The New York Times, comes as the utility industry faces slow growth in energy consumption and a two-year fall in capital spending, the first such decline since the Great Depression.

“The industry is facing a lot of demands to spend more money to fix up an aging infrastructure, build smart grids and deal with cyber security while cutting carbon emissions,” said Bill Kemp, a Black & Veatch vice president, in an interview. “In the near term, we’ll have a difficult economic environment and a slow sales growth as regulators are reluctant to push through large rate increases while voters are still in pain.”

The stalled emissions trading legislation in Congress has added to the confusion about the future shape of the electricity market, Black & Veatch found. Despite a high-profile campaign by some utility executives to support an emissions trading market, more than 70 percent of the industry insiders surveyed oppose the current legislation and 52 percent said the United States cannot afford the proposal to cap greenhouse gas emissions.

More than 75 percent think there is a future for coal-fired power plants.

In fact, 44 percent of those surveyed don’t believe global warming is caused by human activity, according to the report, while 7 percent don’t believe the planet is warming.

“Utility respondents generally appear to be less certain of the threat of global warming than the general public and scientific community, as well as many political and policy leaders,” the report’s authors wrote.

“Utility professionals also seem to be quite disturbed about the direction of the global warming movement,” they added, “and the likelihood that their organizations will be facing what many of them seem to view as draconian changes in the short term.”

You can read the rest of the story here.

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Could we really be as dependent on fossil fuels in 2034 as we are today? In The New York TImes on Friday, I write about a projection from energy consultants Black & Veatch that sees fossil fuels continuing to play a dominant role in the United States a quarter century from now:

A quarter century from now the United States’ reliance on fossil fuels will have declined only marginally, according to a projection from Black & Veatch, the engineering and energy consulting firm.

In 2034, a mix of coal, natural gas and other fossil fuels will supply 68 percent of the nation’s energy needs, compared to 76 percent today. The share of energy production from renewable sources, including solar and wind, in 2034 will rise to 13 percent from 5 percent. Nuclear power will supply only 2 percent more electricity than it does in 2010, the firm said.

Those numbers were part of a presentation that Black & Veatch made to utility executives and other clients in Sacramento this week and which Mark Griffith, a managing director at the company, shared with The Times.

“We’re not assuming that greenhouse gas legislation leads to a immediate shutdown of all coal plants, nor does it lead to going directly to natural gas or renewables,” said Mr. Griffith.

However, Mr. Griffith acknowledged that a number of factors remain in flux that could change those dynamics, including the final shape of a cap-and-trade system – if one is implemented – and whether the United States imposes a requirement that all states obtain a percentage of their electricity from renewable sources.

You can read the rest of the story here.

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In another sign of a nuclear revival, Louisiana Governor Bobby Jindal on Tuesday announced a deal with The Shaw Group and Westinghouse for the nation’s first factory to build nuclear power plant components.

Louisiana tossed in tax breaks and other incentives worth $248 million over the next decade to lure the project to the Port of Lake Charles. The assembly plant will be a joint venture between engineering and construction firm Shaw (SGR) and Westinghouse, the nuclear plant builder now owned by Toshiba. The two companies are constructing four nuclear power stations in China and say they’re looking at 14 power plants in the United States.  There hasn’t been a new nuke plant licensed in the U.S. in more than three decades.

“The agreement to fabricate modules for the AP1000 nuclear power plant in Louisiana again proves that the nuclear renaissance is now a reality,” said Westinghouse executive Dan Lipman in statement.

Of the many hurdles to reviving the U.S. nuclear industry – the unresolved waste disposal issue, huge capital costs, environmental opposition –  the withering away of the infrastructure to produce power plant components has been one that has received relatively little attention.

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“Years ago we came to the conclusion that global warming was a problem, it was an urgent problem and the need for action is now. The problem appears to be worse and more imminent today, and the need to take action sooner and take more significant action is greater than ever before” — PG&E Chairman and CEO Peter Darbee

The head of one of the nation’s largest utilities seemed to be channeling Al Gore on Tuesday when he met with a half-dozen environmental business writers, including Green Wombat, in the PG&E (PCG) boardroom in downtown San Francisco. While a lot of top executives talk green these days, for Darbee green has become the business model, one that represents the future of the utility industry in a carbon-constrained age.

As Katherine Ellison wrote in a feature story on PG&E that appeared in the final issue of Business 2.0 magazine last September, California’s large utilities — including Southern California Edison (EIX) and San Diego Gas & Electric (SRE) — are uniquely positioned to make the transition to renewable energy and profit from green power.

First of all, they have no choice. State regulators have mandated that California’s investor-owned utilities obtain 20 percent of their electricity from renewable sources by 2010 with a 33 percent target by 2020. Regulators have also prohibited the utilities from signing long-term contracts for dirty power – i.e. with the out-of-state coal-fired plants that currently supply 20 percent of California’s electricity. Second, PG&E and other California utilities profit when they sells less energy and thus emit fewer greenhouse gases. That’s because California regulators “decouple” utility profits from sales, setting their rate of return based on things like how well they encourage energy efficiency or promote green power.

Still, few utility CEOs have made green a corporate crusade like Darbee has since taking the top job in 2005. And the idea of a staid regulated monopoly embracing technological change and collaborating with the likes of Google (GOOG) and electric car company Tesla Motors on green tech initiatives still seems strange, if not slightly suspicious, to some Northern Californians, especially in left-leaning San Francisco where PG&E-bashing is local sport.

In a wide-ranging conversation, Darbee, 54, sketched sketched a future where being a successful utility is less about building big centralized power plants that sit idle until demand spikes and more about data management – tapping diverse sources of energy — from solar, wind and waves to electric cars — and balancing supply and demand through a smart grid that monitors everything from your home appliances to where you plugged in your car. “I love change, I love innovation,” says Darbee, who came to PG&E after a career in telecommunications and investment banking.

Renewable energy

“On renewable energy what we’ve seen is the market is thin,” says Darbee. “Demand just from ourselves is greater than supply in terms of reliable, well-funded companies that can provide the service.”

PG&E so far has signed power purchase agreements with three solar startups — Ausra, BrightSource Energy and Solel — for up to 1.6 gigawatts of electricity to be produced by massive solar power plants. Each company is deploying a different solar thermal technology and uncertainty over whether the billion-dollar solar power stations will ultimately be built has prompted PG&E to consider jumping into the Big Solar game itself.

“We’re looking hard at the question of whether we can get into the business ourselves in order to do solar and other forms of renewables on a larger scale,” Darbee says. “Let’s take some of the work that’s been done around solar thermal and see if we can partner with one of the vendors and own larger solar installations on a farm rather than on a rooftop.”

“I like the idea of bringing the balance sheet of a utility, $35 billion in assets, to bear on this problem,” he adds.

It’s an approach taken by the renewable energy arm of Florida-based utility FPL (FPL), which has applied to build a 250-megawatt solar power plant on the edge of the Mojave Desert in California.

For now, PG&E is placing its biggest green bets on solar and wind. The utility has also signed a 2-megawatt deal with Finavera Renewables for a pilot wave energy project off the Northern California coast. Given the power unleashed by the ocean 24/7, wave energy holds great promise, Darbee noted, but the technology is in its infancy. “How does this technology hold up against the tremendous power of the of the Pacific Ocean?”

Electric cars

Darbee is an auto enthusiast and is especially enthusiastic about electric vehicles and their potential to change the business models of both the utility and car industries. (At Fortune’s recent Brainstorm Green conference, Darbee took Think Global’s all-electric Think City coupe for a spin and participated in panels on solar energy and the electric car.)

California utilities look at electric cars and plug-in hybrids as mobile generators whose batteries can be tapped to supply electricity during peak demand to avoid firing up expensive and carbon-spewing power plants. If thousands of electric cars are charged at night they also offer a possible solution to the conundrum of wind power in California, where the breeze blows most strongly in the late evenings when electricity demand falls, leaving electrons twisting in the wind as it were.

“If these cars are plugged in we would be able to shift the load from wind at night to using wind energy during the day through batteries in the car,” Darbee says.

The car owner, in other words, uses wind power to “fill up” at night and then plugs back into the grid during the day at work so PG&E can tap the battery when temperatures rise and everyone cranks up their air conditioners.

Darbee envisions an electricity auction market emerging when demand spikes. “You might plug your car in and say, ‘I’m available and I’m watching the market and you bid me on the spot-market and I’ll punch in I’m ready to sell at 17 cents a kilowatt-hour,” he says. “PG&E would take all the information into its computers and then as temperatures come up there would be a type of Dutch auction and we start to draw upon the power that is most economical.”

That presents a tremendous data management challenge, of course, as every car would need a unique ID so it can be tracked and the driver appropriately charged or credited wherever the vehicle is plugged in. Which is one reason PG&E is working with Google on vehicle-to-grid technology.

“One of the beneficiaries of really having substantial numbers of plug-in hybrid cars is that the cost for electric utility users could go down,” says Darbee. “We have a lot of plants out there standing by for much of the year, sort of like the Maytag repairman, waiting to be called on for those super peak days. And so it’s a large investment of fixed capital not being utilized.” In other words, more electric and plug-in cars on the road mean fewer fossil-fuel peaking power plants would need to be built. (And to answer a question that always comes up, studies show that California currently has electric generating capacity to charge millions of electric cars.)

Nuclear power

Nuclear power is one of the hotter hot-button issues in the global warming debate. Left for dead following the Three Mile Island and Chernobyl disasters, the nuclear power industry got a new lease on life as proponents pushed its ability to produce huge amounts of carbon-free electricity.

“The most pressing problem that we have in the United States and across the globe is global warming and I think for the United States as a whole, nuclear needs to be on the table to be evaluated,” says Darbee.

That’s unlikely to happen, however in California. The state in the late 1970s banned new nuclear power plant construction until a solution to the disposal of radioactive waste is found. PG&E operates the Diablo Canyon nuclear plant, a project that was mired in controversy for years in the ’70s as the anti-nuke movement protested its location near several earthquake faults.

“It’s a treasure for the state of California – It’s producing electricity at about 4 cents a kilowatt hour,” Darbee says of Diablo Canyon. “I have concerns about the lack of consensus in California around nuclear and therefore even if the California Energy Commission said, `Okay, we feel nuclear should play a role,’ I’m not sure we ought to move ahead. I’d rather push on energy efficiency and renewables in California.”

The utility industry

No surprise that Darbee’s peers among coal-dependent utilities haven’t quite embraced the green way. “I spent Saturday in Chicago meeting with utility executives from around the country and we’re trying to see if we can come to consensus on this very issue,” he says diplomatically. “There’s a genuine concern on the part of the industry about this issue but there are undoubtedly different views about how to proceed and what time frames to proceed on.”

For Darbee one of the keys to reducing utility carbon emissions is not so much green technology as green policy that replicates the California approach of decoupling utility profits from sales. “If you’re a utility CEO you’ve got to deliver earnings per share and you’ve got to grow them,” he says. “But if selling less energy is contradictory to that you’re not going to get a lot of performance on energy efficiency out of utilities.”

“This is a war,” Darbee adds, “In fact, some people describe [global warming] as the greatest challenge mankind has ever faced — therefore what we ought to do is look at what are the most cost-effective solutions.”

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Fortune senior editor David Kirkpatrick reports from Fortune’s Brainstorm Green conference:

PASADENA, Calif — One of the more interesting observations I’ve heard at Fortune’s Brainstorm Green conference concerned genetically-modified foods and nuclear power. Someone commented that these two things — historically the object of huge vituperation from environmentally-minded critics — are both seeing a modulation of criticism.

The world is undergoing a food crisis caused, at least in part, by an undue emphasis on biofuels and in any case closely connected to the dramatically increased price of oil. (I certainly hope the issue of biofuels and food comes up when Adam Lashinsky interviews biofuel’s crown prince Vinod Khosla.) In the face of this food crisis, the antipathy toward GMOs may be starting to fade. The recent moves by Korea to allow in American beef after long resisting it, and by Japan to allow American rice, may just be early signs, this guy said. I’d speculate also that if it’s a question of starvation or survival, the southern African nations which have so adamantly opposed GMOs will almost certainly rethink their positions. (Aside from Zimbabwe’s Mugabe, of course, from whom rationality cannot be presumed.)

In a session on the topic of nuclear power, Fortune’s David Whitford asked the audience how many were unalterably opposed to increasing nuclear power in the U.S. for any reason. In this room of perhaps 300 environmentally-minded Americans, only about 20 raised their hands. With oil at $116 and global warming an ever-more urgent concern, minds are opening. Not that most of those in the room wouldn’t add substantial caveats to their unwillingness to rule nuclear out.

That said, the advocacy of nuclear power shown by Alex Flint of the Nuclear Energy Institute on Whitford’s panel drifted to some absurd extremes. For instance, he said that he would be willing to have a nuclear waste facility in his backyard, and that the location of a nuclear power plant “as close as possible” to his house “would be good for land values.” What is this guy smoking?

In answer to my question — one also raised by his co-panelist David Lockbaum of the Union of Concerned Scientists — about what happens if a jet piloted by a terrorist plows into a nuclear plant, Flint was unconvincing. He claims that studies show that plants’ containment vessels are strong enough to prevent any release of radiation. To which Lockbaum replied that all the studies pre-9/11 found that even if that were the case, the shaking that would be inevitable in such a scenario would sever essentially all pipes and cables in and out of a plant, making a meltdown likely. Studies since 9/11 are classified, he noted, adding “but the laws of physics did not change that day.”

In the random interesting comments category, I was struck by an amazing statistic proffered by IBM’s (IBM) Rich Lechner in a session on Greening the IT industry. There were plenty of convincing arguments being made in the room that IT and the intelligence bequeathed by computing can have a major impact on reducing energy use and carbon releases.

But Lechner noted that a virtual person in Second Life has a larger carbon footprint than the average person in Brazil. His point, presumably, was that as people enter a developed economy, their carbon footprint goes way up along with their increasing use of tech.

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Diablo_canyon
photo: emdot

The nuclear power business is resurgent, re-energized by billions in Congressional subsidies and its reincarnation as a relatively greenhouse-gas free source of electricity. But the industry can pretty much write off global warming-fighting California – the world’s eighth largest economy – as a market, according to a new state government report assessing nuclear power’s prospects in the Golden State. Three existing nuclear plants provide 15 percent of California’s electricity, but in 1976 the state banned the construction of new nuclear power stations until the California Energy Commission determines technology exists for the permanent disposal or reprocessing of radioactive waste. "Commercial nuclear power is riding a wave of renewed interest and support," notes the 302-page report from the California Energy Commission. But the authors conclude the lack of a permanent radioactive waste disposal site – such at the long-delayed facility at Yucca Mountain in Nevada – will continue to doom industry’s prospects in California. "In light of Californias moratorium on nuclear power development, until progress is made in disposing of or reprocessing spent fuel, the Energy Commission could not provide land use permits or certification for such a power plant at this time," according to the report. "It is unlikely that the Energy Commission will be able to provide land use permits or certification for a new nuclear power plant in California in the near future." The report also predicts that utilities that operate or own the state’s existing nuclear plants – PG&E (PCG), San Diego Gas & Electric (SRE) and Southern California Edison (EIX) – will not attempt to license new power stations in the next two years.

Beyond the hurdle posed by the California moratorium, the report casts doubt on just how clean and green the nuclear option would be. "Nuclear power generation poses direct environmental risks, including aquatic impacts from once-through cooling; risk of groundwater contamination with tritium; radiation hazards associated with disposal of radioactive waste; and risks of radioactive releases triggered by earthquakes, tsunamis, accidents, or sabotage," the report says. "Additional environmental impacts are associated with the full nuclear lifecycle, which starts with uranium mining and extends through reactor construction and operation to spent fuel storage/disposal or reprocessing and finally, decommissioning."

The California Energy Commission report also finds the jury is still out on how effective a nuclear strategy would be in countering global warming, noting that the capital-intensive industry could drain investment from much cheaper and greener renewable energy technologies. Still, the report’s authors did not rule out a return of nukes to California. "Ultimately, this debate over whether nuclear power should be part of a greenhouse gas reduction strategy is constrained by our limited knowledge of what other resources will be available," they state. "Consequently, the best path right now may to pursue all options and defer decisions until more is known."

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