August 28, 2008

Alternative Energy - Part 1 of 4 - A Look At Four Different Options

I write a daily blog for Rollins Financial, and one of the recent subjects that I have been discussing each week has been the debate on alternative energy. I have received some great e-mails from clients and subscribers, so I thought I would share those posts with you over the next few weeks.

With the rise in the price of conventional fuels (namely oil and natural gas) earlier this year, there was a shift to look at different energy alternatives. Many people have pointed to the need for green energy, while others have talked about the U.S. dependency on foreign countries for oil. Whatever the reasons may be, alternative energy sources are going to become a growing part of our lives.

Today's post will be the first in a series of four posts discussing four different alternative energy sources - nuclear, solar, wind, and ethanol. While none of these sources to be discussed are new, the importance of each over the next 10+ years should grow.

Nuclear Energy

Since 1951, the U.S. has been at some level interested in nuclear power as an alternative energy source. During the late 1960's and early 1970's, it seemed that everyone wanted to build and operate a nuclear plant and soon. Then as construction costs mounted and economies of scale were not realized, nuclear power essentially faded into the background.

Fast forward to 2008 and it has now been 30 years since a new plant was ordered, and 18 years since the "peak" of nuclear plants in the U.S. with 112 units. As of today, the U.S. currently receives 19.4% of its energy from the 104 units that are still generating electricity. Since this is the most widely used alternative energy solution, what can be done to make it better and more widespread? First, look across the ocean at our old friends in France.

France is a country with no oil, coal, or natural gas, so back in the 1950's, Charles de Gaulle pushed the French into the nuclear age. De Gaulle did not want France dependent on other nations, and to him, nuclear energy was the solution.

Thus 50+ years later in 2008, the French currently have 58 plants that produce 77% of the country's electricity. Also, they have continued to improve the technology of the plants by making them safer, more powerful, and more efficient with their third generation European Pressurized Reactor (EPR). The EPR plants also used what is called a "closed fuel cycle" which essentially means they reprocess used nuclear fuel to recover plutonium made in the reactors so it can be reused as nuclear fuel.

How "green" are the nuclear power plants? As President Nicolas Sarkozy recently said, "Each EPR that replaces a (natural) gas-powered electricity plant saves two billion cubic meters of gas each year, and each EPR replacing a coal plant means cutting 11 million tons of CO2." In France, electrical power generation accounts for only 10 percent of the nation's greenhouse gases compared with an average of 40 percent in other industrialized countries. The French have become such experts in nuclear energy that they are in negotiations to buy England's nuclear power plants to renovate and build new ones.

Can we copy the French? Yes, but the U.S. needs to make this just one part of the solution - it is not the magical answer. A typical EPR plant costs about $5 billion to build, so the costs are large. The main issues holding any new plant back will be the bureaucracy and politicians.

If we can jump through the hurdles of politics and bureaucracy red tape, the U.S. could start to increase its nuclear energy foot print and lower its dependency on foreign oil and help lower greenhouse gases too.

Sources: International Herald Tribune, U.S. Energy Information Administration, World Nuclear Association

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