“The Stimulus” was all the buzz last week at the Energy Symposium sponsored by the Berkeley Energy and Recourse Collective at the Haas Business School.”We’ve got a favorable administration in Washington now and a lot of that stimulus money is going to be coming right through this campus,” said Chancellor Robert J. Birgeneau in opening the event. Mary Nichols, the new chairwoman of the California Air Resources Board, couldn’t wait to get started in implementing, the Global Warming Solutions Act of 2006, which mandates that California get 20 percent of its electricity from non-hydro renewables by next year and 33 percent by 2020. The figure now stands at 12 percent. The state is also supposed to ban out-of-state coal, which provides 20 percent of its power, by next year - although many doubt that will be enforced. “President Obama has consistently said that California has set the example in pioneering alternate energy for the rest of the country,” said Nichols, who previously served as head of CARB under former Governor Jerry Brown.
But where is all this leading? The most promising candidate for ramping up solar - the only candidate, really - is solar thermal, which uses vast arrays of mirrors to heat water. Ausra, an Australian company with offices in California, claims it can generate 600 megawatts per square mile, which means it could provide the country’s entire capacity on only 10,000 square miles of Southwest desert - a square 100 miles on each side. The company claims its costs would be comparable with nuclear or a coal plant with complete carbon capture.
But none of this takes into account energy storage, a still unsolved technological problem. And storing electricity for 16 hours - the generally accepted standard - would mean building the facility three times as big, since it has to generate both for contemporary and future use. And of course all this is contingent on not having any cloudy days.
The only thing making these ventures even conceivable is California’s draconian renewable mandates, plus the oodles of subsidies forthcoming for solar out of the Stimulus Plan. Nuclear, on the other hand, was completely shut out of the stimulus.
Is the industry concerned?
“Frankly, we don’t need any money from The Stimulus,” said Scott Perterson, vice president of the Nuclear Energy Institute, who sat on a panel about nuclear power. “It would have been nice to have it but we don’t need it.”
“We don’t even need the federal loan guarantees,” chimed in Conway, site manager for Southern California Edison’s Diablo Canyon Reactor. “There are 34 reactors under construction around the world. Nuclear is moving ahead so rapidly and reactors in this country are making so much money - about $2 million a day - all we need is for the federal government to grant us some licenses and let us go ahead and build. We don’t need any government money.”
Nuclear industry insiders are even optimistic that licensing procedures at the Nuclear Regulatory Commission may shorten, since most of the reactors before the NRC are already under construction in other countries. “By the time the NRC gets around to approving these proposals, identical reactors are already going to be operating in Japan, China or France,” said one official.
Despite being ignored by Washington, the Nuclear Renaissance may happen yet.