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Nuclear plants, blackouts and carbon capture at FORTUNE conference

April 5, 2011 |  3:12 pm

San onofre marc boster lat
The U.S. must shore up its backup power infrastructure to avoid the electricity shortages that roiled Japan following the devastating earthquake and tsunami, a key federal energy official said Tuesday.

“We take electricity for granted in a lot of ways,” said Philip Moeller, commissioner of the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, at a conference in Dana Point. “Right now, we’re vulnerable.”

In the case of a catastrophe, a bank of spare transformers or specially-designed substations could help prevent the rolling blackouts caused by idled nuclear plants in Japan, he said.

But even with public hesitation around nuclear power, Moeller’s fellow panelists at the Fortune Brainstorm Green conference said it remained a valuable energy source. 

“Can we do without nuclear? Probably, but I’d hesitate to take it off the table today,” said Bill Weihl, Google’s green energy czar.  “The key is figuring out how to get over the next 20, 30, 40 years with very low emissions and nuclear is a big part of that.”

Panelists suggested ramping up government and private investor support of other renewable energy sources such as wind and solar. But smart grids -– sophisticated electricity information and metering systems that can help integrate clean power –- are still being developed around the country “in fits and starts,” Moeller said.

“It’s a very difficult process that’s going very slowly,” he said. “There’s no real place to share the lessons learned, the best practices.”

And without nationwide legislation or incentives to encourage carbon capture and storage technologies, dirty coal will likely continue to dominate electricity production, said Michael Morris, chief executive of the American Electric Power utility.

“If there’s no law that causes the states to tell companies like mine or others to spend millions of dollars retrofitting plants to capture carbon, it’s just not going to happen,” he said, adding that competitors in China, India, Russia and other companies are all continuing to build coal facilities.

Alan Salzman, chief executive of VantagePoint Venture Partners, which invests in companies such as electric vehicles service provider Better Place and solar developer BrightSource Energy, wasn’t pleased.

“You can make a strong argument that coal is the new tobacco,” he said. “There are lots of things that are plentiful and inexpensive but we manage to get by without them, like child labor.”

-- Tiffany Hsu

Photo: Nuclear power: The seaside San Onofre plant is designed to survive a magnitude 7.0 earthquake. Credit: Mark Boster/Los Angeles Times