As you might expect, the second of three days of the hearings on the climate change bill saw some themes emerge. First, the tenor more-or-less avoids talking about specific energy generators even when representatives of relevant companies are present. Natural gas probably picked up the most traction and even that was fairly muted.
Second, many of the participants worry that Congress will not act and carbon reduction will be mandated instead via Environmental Protection Agency regulations. Some say waiting for either a legislative or regulatory remedy causes enough uncertainly to forestall investment. Here’s Ralph Izzo, Chairman, CEO and President of the Public Service Enterprise Group (PSEG), on this issue (our transcipt):
Some companies are now making low-carbon investment choices, particularly those like PSEG that are already subject to carbon regulation. But uncertainty about a national program slows our transition to a green economy, complicating investment decisions about whether to retrofit coal plants to reduce emissions, pursue development of new nuclear or invest in offshore wind.”
And here he makes the case explicitly:
“Congress can avoid this costly and cumbersome path by enacting strong cap-and-trade legislation that obviates the need for EPA to regulate greenhouse gases under the Clean Air Act.”
Third, the expansion of nuclear energy, when it does enter the conversation, seems a foregone conclusion. We noted in the comments on Day 1 that some of our readers think the Obama administration will stifle the development of new nuclear energy facilities. We don’t agree, but would add that Congress has a hand here, too.
Here’s David Crane, CEO of NRG Energy, making the case most forcefully in opening testimony:
Three new nuclear power plants by 2020, while an important first step in the right direction, does not a nuclear renaissance make. If you assume that all 104 nuclear reactors currently operating in the United States have been retired by 2050, that means we need approximately 75 new nuclear units over the next 41 years simply to keep nuclear power’s share of electricity production near 20%. If we want to double the nuclear share of power production to 40% in order to accommodate demand growth and realize a greater carbon benefit, we are going to need to build about 150 new nuclear units.
There is a big gap between the three to four new plants currently working their way through the system to construction now and 150. In my view, we have no hope of getting anywhere near 150 new units over the next 41 years unless we have an effective nuclear title as part of comprehensive climate change legislation in 2009.
That title must embrace new nuclear as a fundamental building block of our 21st century national energy policy, and provide the pragmatic, essential policy tools that are needed to realize the laudable intentions laid out for new nuclear power in the Kerry- Boxer bill -- tools that are needed in addition to a price on carbon for nuclear to succeed. Those tools must address the key commercial constraints to a nuclear renaissance, and include worker training, expanded domestic manufacturing capability, transitional loan guarantees for project financing for a second wave of new plants, and efficient and safe regulatory approval processes capable of handling a much larger volume of projects.
And consider this exchange between Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse (D-R.I.) and Dustin Johnson of the South Dakota Public Utilities Commission (our transcript):
Whitehouse: I think you’ll be happy with what comes out on nuclear. There’s a new nuclear era coming and we just need to be sure we do it right and that we work as hard as we can to make nuclear byproducts be manageable and there is technology that allows used nuclear fuel and we need to be sure that we develop that because that’s the hazard.
Johnson: Well, Senator, thank you and you do give me reason for optimism that it’s going to be better, as right now I think the nuclear title is rather weak. But I’ll take your word for it that it will get better.
We choose the theme behind door three.
Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse.