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Wellinghoff: Market Will Decide Future of Coal, Nukes

FERC Chairman Jon Wellinghoff attempted to smooth the waters surrounding his recent prediction of an upgraded electric grid, bolstered by fully integrated renewables but with few, if any, new coal or nuclear generators, in Washington, DC, last week.

Wellinghoff said he had been speaking about a scenario in which variable resources could be used "to really meet peak loads in a very reliable way." Under such circumstances, there may be no need for new nuclear or coal generators, but "the bottom line is that markets will decide."

"What is the future role of coal and nuclear in this country? The market will tell," Wellinghoff said.

Wellinghoff spoke during a meeting hosted by The Energy Daily and the COMPETE Coalition.

Last month Wellinghoff said the cost of new plants may be bringing down the curtain on coal and the nuclear renaissance (see NGI, April 27). Prices as high as $3,000/kW for coal plants and $7,000/kW for nuclear facilities may make such projects obsolete and renewables a cheaper alternative, he said. "We may not need any [more nuclear or coal] ever," while natural gas could be used as a bridge to a renewables-dominated future, Wellinghoff said.

Wind is the renewable service offering the most positive potential impact in coming years, Wellinghoff said, citing estimates of 500-700 GW of potential wind power in the Midwest and 200-300 GW in Montana and Wyoming. Solar generated in the Southeast "could provide enough energy for the entire country," and hydropower could provide at least another 100 GW, he said. The combination of renewables, increased efficiencies and demand side management will meet the nation's energy needs if the grid is upgraded, according to Wellinghoff.

Wellinghoff's prediction has been challenged by Reps. Joe Barton (R-TX) and Greg Walden (R-OR). In a letter sent to the Chairman May 8, Barton and Walden asked Wellinghoff to provide by May 22 data and documentation backing up his statement that no new nuclear or coal plants may be needed in coming years.

"We support development of domestic renewable electricity resources...[but] it remains to be seen how these renewable resources can be effectively incorporated into baseline electricity production because of the many challenges associated with the development of facilities (including the financing, siting, permitting, construction and operation), the need for new transmission and distribution infrastructure, and -- with respect to wind and solar in particular -- the intermittent nature of power availability," the two wrote in their letter to Wellinghoff.

During hearings held as part of the House Energy and Commerce Committee's review of the American Clean Energy and Security Act of 2009, "witnesses have testified to the critical role of coal and nuclear energy, which collectively provide almost 70% of the nation's electricity supply, and have acknowledged that, to meet growing energy demands, both coal and nuclear power will need to continue to be part of the nation's energy portfolio," according to Barton and Walden. Barton is the ranking Republican member of the House Energy and Commerce Committee.

Wellinghoff's prediction has also been criticized by American Coalition for Clean Coal Electricity CEO Steve Miller, who said "ignoring the obvious benefits of traditional baseload fuels could put the reliability of the nation's electricity supply at risk."

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