Power Shortage May Electrify Coal, Nuclear Industries

Article excerpt

In the electricity business, opportunity is emerging from crisis.

California's power shortages, the jump in natural-gas prices, and tight electricity supplies elsewhere in the United States have roused hopes in both the nuclear-power and coal industry for a business revival.

"It is making new nuclear plants look better and better all the time," says Marvin Fertel, an executive at the Nuclear Energy Institute (NEI) in Washington. The industry has "a real shot" at an order for a new plant "during this decade."

If so, it would be something close to a Lazarus-like event. The last order for a nuclear plant that was actually completed was in 1973. Many experts, noting the high capital costs of a "nuke" and the extreme opposition to them, write off nuclear power for the indefinite future.

The coal industry has even higher hopes of new business.

"Over the last year, we have seen a definite renewed interest in using coal for producing electricity," says Connie Holmes, a senior vice president at the National Mining Association (NMA) in Washington.

Coal today provides 51 percent of the nation's electricity.

But the last major coal plant to come on line was in 1996. For some years, electricity providers have usually preferred to meet the expanding demand for power with new, relatively cheap, quickly built, natural-gas plants. They add little to air pollution. And gas was cheap.

That's changed. Natural gas is now expensive. The reliability of its supply is also questioned.

Right now, the cost of coal is about one-third that of natural gas or oil on a heat-equivalent basis.

Wisconsin Electric Power recently applied for regulatory approval of two large 600-megawatt coal plants. And that order, says Mrs. Holmes, may be "just the tip of the iceberg."

Behind the new enthusiasm for nuclear and coal power is a rising demand for electricity - about 2 to 2.5 percent a year, compounded year after year.

In California, demand has been rising 3 to 4 percent. But supply, caught up in a deregulation mess and the difficulty of finding new sites for plants within the state, has stagnated.

No significant large power plant of any kind has been built in California for 16 years.

Jack Gerard, president of the NMA, says the nation will need all kinds of power - coal, natural gas, nuclear, hydro-electric, and renewable resources (wind, solar, etc. …