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Green Energy Sector Weekly Update: Despite Fukushima Republicans Strongly Support Nuclear Energy

Dixie Lee Ray, the always colorful and often controversial former chair of the Atomic Energy Commission once allegedly said, “A nuclear power plant is infinitely safer than eating, because 300 people choke to death on food every year.” Though neither House Republicans nor President Barack Obama would necessarily embrace Ray’s choice of words (especially in the wake of this week’s partial meltdown at Japan’s Fukushima nuclear plant), they both demonstrated a willingness to embrace her sentiment. Of course, it took a level 5 nuclear emergency before the two sides openly acknowledged their agreement on the subject.

While workers at Fukushima nuclear plant were busy dousing the plant’s No. 3 reactor with water cannons to avert a full scale nuclear disaster, the U.S. House Committee on Energy and Commerce was tackling the issue in the way it knows best, by using congressional hearings. The proceedings, which were convened to address the Department of Energy’s budget, became a forum for committee Republicans to reassert their support for nuclear energy despite the problems at Fukushima.

In a prepared statement delivered at the start of the hearings Committee Chair Fred Upton (R-Mich.) claimed “I am not straying from my support for safe nuclear energy as a vital component (of the country’s energy mix)” despite events in Japan. Environment and Economy Subcommittee Chairman John Shimkus (R-Ill.) went one step further, noting that “We should not use these once in a lifetime events as an excuse to shutter our domestic nuclear capacity and the clean air benefits that come with it.”

By invoking nuclear power’s environmental credentials, Shimkus borrowed a page from Obama’s playbook. The president considers nuclear an important part of his strategy for moving away from carbon-based energy sources, and he included $36 billion in loan guarantees for construction of new nuclear reactors in his budget. Energy Secretary Steven Chu, testifying before the House committee, affirmed that the events in Japan have not changed the president’s mind about nuclear and he noted the administration still wants $36 billion for new American reactors.

Given the open disdain many House Republicans hold for the president, the political love fest spawned by both sides’ public defense of nuclear power was a bit surprising. It was also extremely brief. While both the president and congressional republicans may be bullish on nuclear, their energy priorities part ways when it comes to anything larger than an atom.

The differences were very much in evidence during Chu’s testimony. Republicans, wary of Obama’s plan to cut fossil fuel subsidies and use the savings to fund green energy research and development, were keen to grill Chu about plans to ramp up federal support for green energy. When Louisiana Republican Bill Cassidy expressed doubts that the country could afford solar and wind power and asked Chu how long the government should subsidize renewables, the secretary responded “I certainly think solar and wind should not have any longer subsidies than oil and gas, which is about 80 or 90 years.”

Chu’s zinger brought an end to any sense of détente between the administration and republicans on energy policy. It also reminded congressmen that Chu and Obama may be willing to acknowledge their common stance on new nuclear plants, but they are prepared to fight to implement the administration’s energy plan in its entirety.

VC & PE Watch

BrightSource Energy, the California developer of Concentrated Solar Power (CSP) plants, is close to raising $125 million as part of a fifth round of venture funding.

Google Ventures has invested an undisclosed amount in waste-to-biofuel company CoolPlanetBiofuels as part of a Series B round of venture funding.

Electric Motorcycle Maker Zero Motorcycles Raised $26M As Founding CEO Departs To Build Helicopters.

A New Hampshire-based energy storage developer, headed by the former CEO of GT Solar, raised more than $14 million in venture funding from new and returning investors, including GE Energy Financial Services.

Harvest Power, a maker of fertilizer products from organic waste resources based in Waltham, Mass., has raised $51.7 million in a second round of funding led by Generation Investment Management.

Solar photovoltaic company Alta Devices raised $72 million from a group of strategic and venture investors, including  Energy Technology Ventures, the new fund jointly managed by GE,  ConocoPhilips and NRG Energy.

Electric Truck Maker Secures $58M.

Musings and Ramblings

The $36 billion in loan guarantees for the construction of new nuclear reactors could prove to be a lifeline to the industry. Without federal support, many insiders believe nuclear does not make economic sense. Last fall a plan to expand operations at the Calvert Cliffs, Maryland nuclear plant was put on hold when the project failed to obtain a workable loan guarantee. A similar situation occurred when the South Texas Nuclear Generating Station (STP) near Houston had to put expansion on hold due to cost overruns and a lack of financing. An agreement that STP made with the Tokyo Electric Power Company last October to push the expansion forward was conditional upon STP securing a DoE loan. It is also de fact conditional on the Japanese company emerging relatively unscathed from the recent earthquake and subsequent nuclear scare.

Out in California the Madera County Board of Supervisors voted unanimously to draft a letter supporting a proposed nuclear power plant in neighboring Fresno County. Events in Japan do not seem to have dampened support for nuclear projects in America’s earthquake country.

Asked to compare the size of the radiation release from Fukushima to Chernobyl, University of California Berkeley environmental health professor Kirk Smith said “(Chernobyl) is like the forest fire compared to the camp fire. It’s the same kind of problem, but Chernobyl created a hazard many, many times bigger.”

By. Green Energy Reporter




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