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Tuesday I attended the (four hour long) Senate committee hearing on Senator Delbert Scott’s bill to undo the legislation that forbids utilities to charge customers up front for new plants. And guess what I learned: we need another nuclear power plant! Oh, there was little doubt about that. Senator Brad Lager, R-Maryville, chair of the committee, started the proceedings by noting that we would “hear some insights from our friends at Ameren” and he urged witnesses opposing the legislation to tell the committee “what would need to be changed for you to be supportive of it.”

There were proponents and opponents of SB 228, but even the opponents, most of them, started by saying, “I know we need this plant and I support that idea.” Then they’d add something to the effect: “But, geezarooney, could you please not hand the credit card numbers and savings account information of every ratepayer in eastern Missouri over to AmerenUE to do with as it pleases?” Admittedly, the witnesses exaggerated less than I just did, but polite moaning about the way this bill hands Ameren the keys to the consumer kingdom was the motif of the day.

I’ll have more to say about their testimony and about how the committee sweated Ameren CEO Voss. That’s for a later posting. My more immediate goal is to answer Senator Lager’s assumption that nothing is wrong with this bill that some (major) tweaking wouldn’t fix. Horsehockey. Nothing could be changed to make it more palatable because it assumes we need another nuclear plant, when, in fact: We. Do. Not.

The arguments for building one generally fall into three categories. The first is that demand is rising, and we must be prepared to meet it.

Investing in energy efficiency, though, would easily offset the rising demand because the increase in usage is so piddling little and dwindling every year. Increased efficiency, according to numerous studies since 1992, could whittle our usage so that it would be well below what it has been. Melissa Hope, speaking for the Sierra Club, testified:

Our electric and gas utilities, with their financial resources and expertise, have the power to save their customers energy and money, reduce pollution and the need for expensive new capacity, and mitigate climate change. They could offer customers free home energy audits, rebates on energy-efficient lighting, insulation and appliances, etc. But they have no incentive-indeed they have a positive disincentive-to do so.  CWIP gives the incentive to do just the opposite – it encourages high cost, large energy supply sources.

“Achieving all cost-effective energy efficiency” is the goal of the National Action Plan for Energy Efficiency, a public-private partnership coordinated by the Environmental Protection Agency and the Department of Energy. According to NAPEE, efficiency programs could save our country 20% of its electricity and 10% of its natural gas consumption.  In fact electric energy use is already dropping.

Note: DOE projections for annual growth in demand: 1.7%, 1.3%, to 1.1% annual growth rate.  The current demand is also dropping and that is before the downturn in the economy. [boldface hers]

Ameren CEO Voss testified that Ameren is committing $30-$50 million a year to helping its customers use power more efficiently. Really? If so, that ought to take up the slack nicely–especially if we use federal stimulus money not only to weatherize public buildings but also to build windmills and install solar panels.

But, said former Republican representative Ed Robb, building enough windmills to provide adequate power would require 250 square miles, and much of our land isn’t suitable for producing wind power. (Kudos to Robb for the most unintentionally entertaining statement of the day, by the way. He urged building the plant for the jobs it would provide. But, Senator Lembke pointed out, those jobs are at least four years down the line. How can we create jobs in the meantime? “Cut the corporate income tax,” said Robb. There was no follow up from Lembke on that obvious truth.)

Besides the fact that windmills take up too much room, what if you want to run your dishwasher or send an e-mail on a calm, windless night? Alternative sources aren’t necessarily there for you when you need them.

Those arguments are disingenuous on a couple of levels. To say that alternative sources aren’t dependable is akin to telling somebody he has to eat all the perishables in his house today or lose them. Yeah, if he doesn’t have a refrigerator. But perishables can be stored in the 21st century. And so can electricity, including the power that alternative sources generate.

Here’s another miracle of modern science: electricity can be transported over large distances. There’s this other state called Nebraska. Montana too. Boy, do they have wind. Wyoming’s state tree is the telephone pole. There are no forests up there to block the breezes. Currently (excuse the pun) moving power from the Northwest to Missouri or New Jersey is tricky because of our outdated power grid. Enter President Obama, speaking about the economic stimulus package:

“But we’ll also do more to retrofit America for a global economy,” he added. “That means updating the way we get our electricity by starting to build a new smart grid that will save us money, protect our power sources from blackout or attack, and deliver clean, alternative forms of energy to every corner of our nation.

It’s true that creating a smart grid will take years. But so will building another nuclear plant–a minimum of ten years for the plant. Suppose Ameren’s customers invest billions, only to discover that we have a white elephant, unnecessary because windmills have been built in North and South Dakota–or Texas–and the smart grid is already moving the electrons to St. Louis. Europe has updated its grid, and now the U.S. is about to follow suit.

A future with a smart grid in it is also the answer to the very real concern that a carbon tax may be imposed in this country to force us to cut carbon emissions. Right now, this state gets 80 percent of its power from coal-fired plants. A carbon tax might drive our rates up 40-50 percent, so nuclear proponents argue for another plant since it would create less carbon footprint than coal-fired plants. That’s true. But it would also create a lot more carbon footprint than a windmill.

The other inconvenient by-product of nuclear plants is radioactivity and the cancers that result from it. But that topic deserves its own posting.

So, Senator Lager, this proposed plant isn’t necessary. In fact, the nuclear energy industry is a dinosaur, costly and dangerous. Some of us just haven’t noticed that yet.