Business & Technology

Nuclear warning to taxpayers, investors, part 2

Nukes may become troubled assets, ruin credit ratings

Part 1 presented a new study that puts the generation costs for power from new nuclear plants at from 25 to 30 cents per kilowatt-hour -- triple current U.S. electricity rates! Nuclear plants with such incredibly expensive electricity and "out of control" capital costs, as Time put it, obviously create large risks for utilities, their investors, and, ultimately taxpayers. Congress extended huge loan guarantees to new nukes in 2005, and the American people will be stuck with another huge bill if those plants join the growing rank of troubled assets. The risk to utilities who start down the new nuke path is also great. A June 2008 report [PDF] by Moody's Investor Services Global Credit Research, "New Nuclear Generating Capacity: Potential Credit Implications for U.S. Investor Owned Utilities" (PR here [PDF]), warned that "nuclear plant construction poses risks to credit metrics, ratings," concluding: The cost and complexity of building a new nuclear power plant could weaken the credit metrics of an electric utility and potentially pressure its credit ratings several years into the project, according to a new report from Moody's Investors Service ... Moody's suggests that a utility that builds a new nuclear power plant may experience an approximately 25% to 30% deterioration in cash-flow-related credit metrics. And this would likely result in a sharp downgrading of the utility's credit rating. The application by Florida Power & Light for a large nuclear plant came in at a stunning $12 to $18 billion, and the utility concedes that new reactors present "unique risks and uncertainties," with "every six-month delay adding as much as $500 million in interest costs." The report Climate Progress published this week, Business Risks and Costs of New Nuclear Power [PDF] by power-plant cost expert Craig Severance, has an extended discussion of the business risks to utilities and hence investors:

VRB Power files for bankruptcy

VRB's long-life flow battery was a reliable electricity storage alternative for renewable energy

VRB Power applied for insolvency in November [PDF]. A combination of a bad economy and a product that was more suited for future markets than today's electricity generators dealt VRB the final blow. This is bad news for the green energy community. VRB built flow batteries -- utility scale batteries that could last for over 10,000 full charges and discharges. Cost was from $650 per kWh for small-scale systems to as a little as $300 per kWh for large-scale systems. Admittedly the latter price was for larger systems than anyone ever ordered. It was the perfect utility-scale battery: too heavy for automobile use, but rugged and tolerant of cold, heat, and shocks. It required minimal operations and maintenance. Even at current costs, these flow batteries could have played a key role in an energy grid based on variable sources. In today's world, it found a niche market at UPS for remote systems where maintenance was difficult, and for telecom use. Unfortunately its greater reliability could not make up for its higher cost. It was an excellent product, unfortunately mostly suited to a electric system that does not yet exist. We can only hope the battery does not end up in patent hell -- owned by somebody who neither licenses it nor develops it themselves.

Bailing out Bidder 70

Tim DeChristopher and Utah stand up to Big Oil

I've never been big on rules. Neither, apparently, is Tim DeChristopher. He's the young activist who just completely derailed the Bush administration's plans to sell more of our public lands to the oil companies. He sat in the lease sale in Salt Lake City on Dec. 19 and "bought" 22,500 acres of public lands right out from under the suits from Chevron and Exxon. One small problem -- Tim doesn't actually have the money. It almost doesn't matter, though, because he's monkeywrenched the process so thoroughly that they won't be able to conduct another sale until after the Obama administration takes over -- and thus hopefully never. Tim needs to raise $45,000 by this Friday, Jan. 9, in order to avoid fraud charges and put the sale out of reach to the Bush administration and their oily friends. He's already raised almost half. I, for one, will be supporting Tim DeChristoper, Bidder 70, with a tax-deductible contribution via the Center for Water Advocacy in Moab, Utah. He deserves thanks for reminding all of us that direct action still gets the goods!

The market myth

Wherein I ramble on about markets and regulations

If I could persuade everyone in America to read a single paragraph, it would be the second 'graph in Dean Baker's new piece in the Boston Review: "Free Market Myth." Here it is: In general, political debates over regulation have been wrongly cast as disputes over the extent of regulation, with conservatives assumed to prefer less regulation, while liberals prefer more. In fact conservatives do not necessarily desire less regulation, nor do liberals necessarily desire more. Conservatives support regulatory structures that cause income to flow upward, while liberals support regulatory structures that promote equality. "Less" regulation does not imply greater inequality, nor is the reverse true. God yes! As Baker points out, this kind of framing puts conservatives at a huge advantage. Americans are suspicious of the vicissitudes of capitalism, but they're even more skeptical about the competence of government. If you can claim you're arguing for "less government intrusion," you've got a big head start. Even more irksome to me is the extent to which progressives and environmentalists cede this framing to conservatives -- indeed, help reinforce it! I can't count how many times I've heard people on this site and elsewhere railing against the "free market" and how it's brought the world to the brink of ruin. Argh. The problem not some inherent moral valence of markets -- no such thing -- but the actual practices of actual people who structure markets to benefit those with power at the expense of those without (and those yet unborn). There are no unstructured ("free") markets. The very term "free market" embeds the myth of a Platonic market free of government involvement. (It's a species of the "noble savage" myth -- the noble market.) But there is not and could be no such thing. Markets are human institutions created by human decisions and maintained by collectively agreed-upon frameworks.

Another step forward

Dynegy pulls out of coal-fired power plant partnership

Today Dynegy announced the dissolution of its partnership with LS Energy, formed in 2006. The goal of the partnership was the construction of up to eight new coal-fired power plants -- as part of its dissolution, Dynegy has abandoned plans for six of the eight. Here's the key bit from the release: "The development landscape has changed significantly since we agreed to enter into the development joint venture with LS Power in the fall of 2006," said Bruce A. Williamson, Chairman, President and Chief Executive Officer of Dynegy Inc. "Today, the development of new generation is increasingly marked by barriers to entry including external credit and regulatory factors that make development much more uncertain. In light of these market circumstances, Dynegy has elected to focus development activities and investments around our own portfolio where we control the option to develop and can manage the costs being incurred more closely." One of those "factors" that has made the development of new (coal) generation "uncertain" is called grassroots organizing. Along with its nonprofit partners, the Sierra Club organized a campaign targeting Dynegy, with protests and rallies that drew unwelcome attention to its plans. Another little piece of good news in the anti-coal fight.

Not so cheap when you have to clean up your own mess

Stiffer regulation of coal ash would cost the industry billions

If I've said it once I've said it, oh, around eleven kazillion times now: "coal is cheap" because the coal industry externalizes costs. Take, for instance, coal ash. It contains several substances that are classified as toxics individually, but the ash itself isn't thus classified. That means it can be stored in enormous pools with no liners, behind earthen dams that, as the disaster in Tennessee illustrates again, periodically fail. What would happen if ash were classified as toxic? The answer can be found in this stellar piece from Bloomberg. Increased regulation would bring costs to upgrade or close more than 600 landfills and waste ponds at 440 plants nationwide. While the Environmental Protection Agency put the price tag at $1 billion a year in 2000, power generators predict the cost would be as high as $5 billion, said Jim Roewer, executive director of the industry-funded Utility Solid Waste Activities Group, in a telephone interview. Why so costly? An EPA report in 2000 found a quarter of retention ponds and 57 percent of landfills lacked liners to prevent pollution from leaking into nearby water supplies, though the 2007 follow-up study found such controls more common at newer sites. So much for cheap. Also note this macabre/hilarious bit:

Brit's Eye View: Wise after the event

The insurance industry is making strides on climate, but has further to go

After another year full of unpleasant surprises, you’d think the insurance sector would be ratcheting up its response to big risks like climate change. The U.K. industry has about $15 trillion of assets under management, so the potential to play a significant role in getting others to factor in climate change looks substantial. A new initiative in London is showing the global industry how to go about it. ClimateWise was launched in 2007 by the Prince of Wales. His view was that “if insurance companies could take a strategic view across all aspects of what they do and look at …

The de-greening of America and China

How the U.S. and China can help, not harm, each other

So this is how it worked: Instead of greening our manufacturing base, amping up our recycling system, and competing on the basis of better production technology, we shipped our production to China, which is busy polluting itself and spewing carbon dioxide. In return, the Chinese took the hundreds of billions from sales to the U.S. and reinvested the money here, helping to make our sprawl even spawlier and our military even more wasteful. According to an article from The New York Times, “Chinese Savings Helped Inflate American Bubble”: In the 19th century, the United States built its railroads with capital …

Coal blogging is fun!

Coal front group sets up ‘Blogger Brigade’ to fight reality

Originally posted at the Wonk Room. The coal industry is attempting to organize bloggers to promote their false “clean coal” propaganda. The Reality Coalition, a group of national environmental organizations, have begun airing the message that “There’s no such thing as clean coal,” to counter the hundreds of millions of dollars spent by coal-powered corporations to pretend that coal is a “clean” fuel. So the American Coalition for Clean Coal Electricity (ACCCE) and Americans for Balanced Energy Choices (ABEC), essentially one coal propaganda group with two different faces, is fighting back with an email blast asking people to join their …

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