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Wednesday, February 17, 2010

Utility Executives Like Nuclear Power. Climate Science, Not So Much.

American utility industry executives see nuclear energy as the most promising carbon-free power source, are skeptical of climate change science, and are uncertain about the future, according to a report to be issued Thursday by Black & Veatch, the engineering and consulting giant.

The survey of 329 executives, managers and engineers, which Black & Veatch shared with The New York Times, comes as the utility industry faces slow growth in energy consumption and a two-year fall in capital spending, the first such decline since the Great Depression.

“The industry is facing a lot of demands to spend more money to fix up an aging infrastructure, build smart grids and deal with cyber security while cutting carbon emissions,” said Bill Kemp, a Black & Veatch vice president, in an interview. “In the near term, we’ll have a difficult economic environment and a slow sales growth as regulators are reluctant to push through large rate increases while voters are still in pain.”

The stalled emissions trading legislation in Congress has added to the confusion about the future shape of the electricity market, Black & Veatch found. Despite a high-profile campaign by some utility executives to support an emissions trading market, more than 70 percent of the industry insiders surveyed oppose the current legislation and 52 percent said the United States cannot afford the proposal to cap greenhouse gas emissions.

More than 75 percent think there is a future for coal-fired power plants.

In fact, 44 percent of those surveyed don’t believe global warming is caused by human activity, according to the report, while 7 percent don’t believe the planet is warming.

“Utility respondents generally appear to be less certain of the threat of global warming than the general public and scientific community, as well as many political and policy leaders,” the report’s authors wrote.

“Utility professionals also seem to be quite disturbed about the direction of the global warming movement,” they added, “and the likelihood that their organizations will be facing what many of them seem to view as draconian changes in the short term.”

Nuclear energy is the utility industry’s preferred “environmentally friendly” technology, followed by wind power and natural gas, the survey found.

Greenhouse gas emissions are the industry’s number one environmental concern followed by worries about the sufficiency of water supplies to cool power plants. Mr. Kemp said water concerns have become a growing issue since Black & Veatch began conducting the survey in 2006.

“There’s increasing water scarcity in lots of areas of the country, including the West, Texas and parts of Southeast,” he said.

It’s problem elsewhere as well. Mr. Kemp noted that a 5,000-megawatt coal-fired power plant complex Black & Veatch is helping build in South Africa will be air-cooled because of a local water shortage.


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