Year in Review: Nuclear options

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Stockings filled with coal come by the Wyoming trainload to feed the furnaces powering CPS Energy’s plants. But impending federal regulation of
carbon emissions is causing utilities nationwide to wrestle with alternatives. CPS’s position has been that natural-gas prices are too volatile. Solar’s still too small. But does that imply nuclear is just right?

San Antonio has been locked in stiff debate over that question this year. Local environmental and energy activists scored a key victory when they got language supporting the proposed doubling of the South Texas (Nuclear)Project stripped from CPS’s May rate hike.

Now, with the economic recession collapsing stock values and consumer energy demand, the utility sector has entered a worrisome free-for-all. Larger predatory power companies are hot on the trail of tempest-tossed small fry, such as COSA’s STP partner NRG Energy. Tritium-leaking, Illinois-based Exelon — with nuke ambitions of its own for Victoria — is pursuing NRG into hostile-takeover waters, while the diversified upstart with many sustainable energy projects under development elsewhere in the country is looking at merger options to protect itself.

Whether newly elected Obama and his Demo Congress will provide the subsidies the would-be nuclear renaissance needs is anyone’s guess. And the cost of constructing new nuke plants isn’t going anywhere but up.

For these reasons, and certainly others, CPS officials announced in late November that they would postpone a final decision about doubling STP until the fall of 2009.

In the meantime, the City-owned utility will focus on implementing efficiency measures to the tune of $685 million and work on setting up their first industrial-sized solar plant. Neither pursuit, however, precludes the need for a traditionally fueled power plant in the years ahead, officials said. With another $200-million request for further nuke study rumored to be following the nuke-vote delay, the “hardest decision” of Mayor Phil Hardberger’s life — his original CPS Board vote in favor of $216 million to pursue nuclear expansion — may be reprised before he leaves the office (and history’s judgment) to the next city shepherd.

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