TORONTO — “Nobody knows de trouble I see,” goes the Negro spiritual. It could have been playing as background music in Toronto, where the Edison Electric Institute (EEI) held its annual convention this week. Things are not terrible for the U.S. electric utility industry at the moment. But the industry’s future is more uncertain than it has ever been.
The challenge facing the industry is that we are using more electricity than ever before, with our bigger homes that have more appliances and gadgets. To meet future demand, according to Jeffry Sterba, chief executive officer of Albuquerque-based PNM Resources, the industry will need to spend $800 billion. Not only is it unclear whether it can raise this amount of money, in a time of constrained credit, but it is also unclear what expenditures public policy will sanction. Consider:
l The future of coal, which accounts for more than half of U.S. electricity production, is uncertain. It is the largest contributor to greenhouse gases, and the future promise of “clean coal” is yet to be realized on a large scale at an affordable price.
The second hope for coal, carbon capture and sequestration is a hot topic in electric utility circles. But David Ratcliffe, chief executive officer of Southern Company, confesses that it has been oversold, and it will be many years—if ever—before the technical and legal issues of diverting carbon dioxide and storing it by the millions of tons underground. The uncertainty has already caused 60 new coal-fired power plants to be canceled, according to speakers at the EEI convention.
l Nuclear power, a longtime favorite of utility executives, still faces public antipathy, and the cost of building the plants has gone up as the American engineering base has declined. The large steel forgings that are required for the construction of nuclear power plants can no longer be made in the United States. They must be imported from Japan at great expense.
Also the U.S. nuclear industry, thriving in the 1960s, has been sold off. Where once there were four U.S. companies that offered nuclear power plants, now General Electric is the only one, and it is in partnership with Japan’s Hitachi. The once mighty Westinghouse Electric is owned by Japan’s Toshiba. And the other vendor is France’s Areva. Only Ratcliffe’s Southern Company is sure that it is going to build two nuclear units. Other companies, including Baltimore-based Constellation Energy, have expressed interest in about 14 new plants—only about half of these are likely to be built.
The Nuclear Energy Institute reckons the nation needs a whopping 65 new nuclear plants to meet new demand and to allow for the retirement some of the more than 100 operating reactors.
l Wind is a bright spot. Wind power has proved more effective for most utilities than they thought, and they are now scrambling to find ways to store wind power as compressed air. But while the West and the North have good wind conditions, the Southeast suffers stagnant air at the time it most needs electricity: the summer. It is an energy option that is not open to every utility and because of its dispersed nature, it is not as manageable as a large coal-fired or nuclear plant.
l Then there is natural gas, which is the most desirable fossil fuel. In the past 25 years, the use of natural gas to turn utility turbines has grown exponentially, from 0 to 30 percent of generation. The trouble is that there is not that much indigenous natural gas around, and there are demands on it for home heating, cooking and fertilizer manufacturing, which are seen as higher uses than making electricity.
This has led to a boom in the import of liquefied natural gas from Asia and the Middle East. But James Rodgers, chief executive officer of Duke Energy, which is a large gas seller as well as a major electric utility, says that this is a dangerous route. By the time the gas gets here, after it has been liquefied and transported in an oil-burning tanker, Rodgers says it is only 20 percent less polluting than coal. Worse, he says this will harness U.S. electric rates to the global cost of oil and gas. That way he sees ruin.
Like their compatriots in the oil industry, utility executives talk a lot about technology coming to the rescue. But so far, there has been nothing that suggests a revolution akin to the one that transformed telephony is in sight. The only really happy thing here in Toronto is the realization that the plug-in hybrid car is coming, and that it will boost utilities’ revenues by recharging overnight when there is a surplus of electricity.