Why America Should Not Give Up on Baseload Power Generation

This year, 2010, will mark the second year in a row that not a single new coal plant will have been built.  Coal fired generation has fallen victim to the death of a thousand potential cuts from the looming risk of new EPA regulations on emissions, to the worry of future liability by insurers, to the pessimism of bankers about a return on their investment in coal.

Policymakers tell us coal is dirty and we need to stop using it to reduce emissions and solve the global warming/climate change/climate crisis.  So what is happening to the US coal we are no longer using? China is buying it for use in coal fired generators back home.

On the other baseload front the US nuclear power generating fleet is performing so well in 2010 that it is closing in on an all-time performance record.  For the first 11 months of 2010, nuclear generation is running almost 1% higher in output this year than last year at 732.9 billion kilowatt-hours compared to 726.3 bkWh for the same period in 2009 and 734.5 bkWh for the record year 2007 the record year with average capacity factors of 85.9% for November 2010.  Even more amazing more than half the nuclear fleet operated at full capacity in November.

Yet policymakers are ambivalent about nuclear power and Congress defunded the Yucca Mountain waste disposal site and no new nuclear plan has been built in the US in more than 30 years.  The nuclear power industry we created is now owned and controlled largely by China and South Korea and Japan. New nuclear technologies for smaller, modular, safer power plants are not coming from here in the US.  Soon we will have to import them from China like everything else manufactured creating one more strategic dependency.

These are signposts of the strategic industrial decline of America.

Our policymakers tell us free trade is good for America—-and it is!   But we must make something to trade—other than printing dollars—if that strategy is going to work long term.

Coal and nuclear baseload power are the canaries in our mine warning us that we are suffocating our economy and increasing our risks by policies that make it uneconomic to manufacture the goods and services needed to sustain America’s future here at home.  What good are our environmental restrictions on coal if the consequence is both our coal and our dollars go to China and the world’s air stays the same?

Our policymakers tell us we will compensate with more energy efficiency and use of clean renewable energy.  But guess where most of that baseload energy powered by coal and nuclear energy are going in our future—to power the PHEV we will recharge overnight.  Why?  Because all that renewable energy is great when the wind blows and the sun shines but does not help us keep the lights on at night. Perversely, the more successful we are in building market share for PHEV the more we will need low cost, reliable baseload power generation to fuel it.

I am not against renewable energy nor energy efficiency—I’m not.  But a great nation cannot stay great if it imports everything it needs and lays waste to its strategic industries with onerous regulation and rising costs that make it uneconomic—-and thus fails to recognize we have just exported our future!