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America's Resource Mix

Wind gains, but won’t soon alter the fuel mix.

Fortnightly Magazine - July 2006

WECC, and Southeast. Development activity for coal-fired capacity in the Northeast is almost nonexistent. Not all of this capacity will be built, as the path from proposal stage to construction is full of obstacles. Still, as indicated below, progress is being made, and as of March 2006, 26,000 MW of capacity is being permitted. More than 4,000 MW are under construction.

Nuclear Energy Consortia Make Progress

In the United States, the president views nuclear power as part of a solution to environmental concerns and dependence on foreign energy supply. The Energy Policy Act of 2005 (EPACT) has introduced production tax incentives of 1.8 cents/kWh for nuclear energy. Three consortia of electric power companies are in early siting and permitting processes with the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) for approval of reactor designs that have been used in recent international projects.

Since 2000, existing nuclear facilities in the United States have increased their output level by about 1,500 MW. At the present time, 15,000 MW of new nuclear capacity is being planned, permitted or to be brought online by 2016. However, a great deal of uncertainty surrounds these projects and their estimated online dates given the extensive application process with federal and state regulators and uncertainties over financing. Given the lack of experience in building nuclear power plants in the United States for more than 20 years, in addition to the more competitive business landscape, the cost of constructing a new reactor is a significant uncertainty. Other important obstacles are safety issues and long-term fuel storage, as opposition to the Yucca Mountain site continues.

In a time of rising and volatile natural-gas prices and concerns about coal’s contribution to global warming, this low-cost baseload capacity source has proven to be enormously valuable and profitable. Nuclear assets have had their share of the consolidation trend in the electricity industry. According to the Nuclear Energy Institute (NEI), nuclear plants had record output and stable costs in 2004. Plants in the United States generated a record 788.6 million MWh in 2004, breaking the 2002 record of 780 million MWh. NEI’s figures put the 2004 average net capacity factor at 90.6 percent, trailing only the 91.9 percent achieved in 2002 and the 90.7 percent in 2001. The slightly lower capacity factor, despite the higher output, is a result of the recent nationwide uprating of nuclear units.

The burden of proving the financial viability of nuclear generation and its ability to overcome the two-decades old opposition falls on the shoulders of the first generation of reactors currently being pursued by the three nuclear consortia. Thus far, the NRC has awarded its design certification to four reactor designs including GE’s Advanced Boiling Water Reactor (ABWR). GE’s Economic Simplified Boiling Water Reactor (ESBWR) design still is under review by the NRC, while several others are being prepared for application. NRC approvals of reactor designs are only one of the many regulatory hurdles to nuclear-generation development. More significantly, the next few years are expected to witness some intense public and regulatory discussion before a broad acceptance is established to allow any of