Surprise! Coal & Nuclear Power are Keys to Obama’s Energy Plan

President-elect Barack Obama has made no bones about wanting to jump-start the renewable energy markets – pledging $150 billion for the development of biofuels, solar and wind power, other alternative energy sources during his first term.

But what might the new administration mean for more traditional – and more reliable -energy sources?

Oil is always the first energy source to spring to mind. But it’s hardly a solo act – coal and nuclear make up the other two-thirds of the top fuel trio. Coal delivers 50% of U.S. electricity needs, and nuclear power brings another 20% to the table.

The cold truth is that demand for energy of all types – and especially electricity – is going to keep advancing, domestically and worldwide. And developing alternatives to coal and nuclear will take time. For instance, tying wind and solar into the existing power grid will be enormously expensive and is likely to pose massive technical and engineering problems.

In fact, according to the International Energy Agency, renewable energy isn’t likely to make a meaningful dent in meeting the world’s energy needs before 2030, if then.

And regardless where the power comes from, our appetite for electricity will continue to skyrocket. Across the planet, overall electricity consumption is expected to double by 2030, increasing by 17 trillion kilowatt hours. While electricity demand will “only” increase by 50% in the U.S. market by 2030, demand will increase 400% in China and six-fold in India.

Our research indicates that President Obama will have very little flexibility in solving our short-term energy problems once he’s sworn into office next month. While he may prefer the environmentally friendly alternatives, most of those replacements are far from fully developed.

The bottom line: Obama’s apparent preference for renewable energy aside, coal and nuclear power are fully deployed, and in widespread use, meaning they’ll remain the backbone of our energy sector in the New Year – and for years to come.

Even so, it’s well worth factoring in all the possible players as we examine energy-sector outlook – and the accompanying potential profit plays – for the next 12 months.

King Coal Reigns Supreme

When it comes to future energy profits for investors, coal and nuclear will continue to be the “dream team” for years to come. Coal will provide the answer to our short-term and intermediate energy needs. It’s plentiful, it’s cheaper than other available alternatives, and a big percentage of the world’s power plants burn it.

Nuclear power offers a long-term solution to energy shortages and a clean solution to global warming, as well. Uranium-fueled nuclear plants are cheap to operate, can run for long periods without refueling, and cause little pollution.

While there is widespread distaste for coal-fired power plants that spew billions of tons of carbon dioxide and other pollutants into the air, there’s no doubt coal will continue to be the dominant player in the electricity game for some time to come.

A full 50% of the electricity U.S. consumers use is generated by coal, and coal is king in the rest of the world, as well. According to the IEA, coal accounted for 42% of all worldwide electricity consumption in 2005. But get this – the agency predicts coal use will explode by 73% over the next 20 years. That’s the largest projected percentage increase of all energy sources. As you might suspect, China and India use 45% of world’s coal and will be responsible for 80% of that increase. China, alone, uses more coal than the United States, Japan and Europe combined. China is utterly dependent on coal to run its factories and assembly plants, with coal supplying 80% of its electricity. The Red Dragon also is the world’s top producer of steel, a process that’s also a big burner of coal.

But while China is coal’s largest consumer and producer, the United States controls 27% of the world’s proven reserves, the biggest-single percentage on the planet. That puts this country front and center on the worldwide coal stage, and President-elect Obama’s energy policy in the spotlight.

The president plays a pivotal role in shaping the nation’s energy policy, naming top officials at the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), the Office of Surface Mining Reclamation and Enforcement and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.

Obama has proposed an economy-wide cap-and-trade system to reduce carbon emissions by 80% by 2050. His system – which would set an overall emissions limit, then require polluters to buy allowances at public auction – would increase electricity rates and discourage coal consumption in the U.S. market. President-elect Obama even has stated that any utilities building coal-fired plants could go bankrupt buying pollution allowances.

And on Capitol Hill, newly emboldened Democrats recently tackled global warming and other environmental problems by choosing Sen. Henry Waxman, D-Calif., to head the House of Representative’s Energy and Commerce panel. Waxman has already signed onto legislation that would ban any new coal-fired power plants that aren’t built using new technologies that capture carbon dioxide and store it underground, a key part of the Obama energy plan.

Luke Popovich, a spokesman for the National Mining Association, said he believes Obama will be pragmatic about the need to keep coal in the nation’s energy mix.

“He presumably would be sensitive to the impacts of energy policies given the perilous state of the economy,” Popovich said.

But while U.S. utilities may eventually be forced to tighten emissions rules and increase rates, Obama’s renewable energy plans will have very little impact on U.S. coal producers in the near future.

The world needs coal. We have it. And we’re going to sell it.

In the first half of 2008, U.S. coal exports increased by 13 million short tons, or 50%, over first-half 2007 shipments, according to the IEA. Strong global demand for coal, combined with supply disruptions in several key coal exporting countries (Australia, South Africa and China), were the primary factors behind the increase.

But lately, coal prices, along with the prices of other fossil fuels, have suffered from the global economic crisis, and from a resurgent U.S. dollar. An 80% decline in global shipping rates has also fostered competition from other exporters, like Australia, which can now ship farther and compete with U.S. exporters.

As a result, the price of Appalachian Coal on the New York Mercantile Exchange (CME) has fallen to less than $80 a ton from $143 in July.

This will have a negative impact on coal producers until the world economy is able to gather itself back up and build up a new head of steam.

But don’t expect the slump to last long. China’s economy is getting a shot in the arm from a gigantic $586 billion stimulus package, cementing growth expectations for 2009. Expect U.S.exports to accelerate when that kicks in, probably in the second half of 2009.

Since the stock market usually leads economic indicators by six-to-nine months, right now is a good time to be looking at candidates for your investing dollar. But you should be cautious about pulling the trigger. Watch construction activity in China – especially steel demand in the late spring – for the first signs of a rebound in coal prices.

When you think things are ready to take off, Peabody Energy Corp. (BTU) and Arch Coal Inc. (ACI) – the largest U.S. producers – are worth a look. For those who like to play a basket of shares, the Market Vectors Coal exchange traded fund (KOL), or ETF, provides the desired diversification. All three securities are trading at discounts of at least 80% from their July highs, and currently trade at bargain basement multiples.

If you want a coal play that bets directly on China, Money Morning Investment Director Keith Fitz-Gerald likes Yanzhou Coal Mining Co. Ltd. (ADR: YZC), one of China’s biggest coal suppliers. It produces lots of high-grade, low-sulfur coal, which burns cleaner and therefore fetches a premium price. The company boasts profit margins of 22%, when the industry averages half that. The company profits are up a blistering 364% in the year’s first three quarters, compared with a year ago. The stock trades at only three times earnings and has a dividend yield of 4.3%.

Nuclear Power: It Struggles in the U.S., but Thrives Abroad

Nuclear power is attractive to the energy industry because it produces electricity on a predictable, 24-hour basis – earning it the industry sobriquet of “base load” power. Coal and hydroelectric plants are the only other power sources that also rate that label. Such alternatives as wind, solar or biofuels do not.

During its term, the Bush administration tried to spark a “renaissance” in the construction of nuclear power plants. And during his presidential campaign, Sen. John McCain stood firmly behind the industry’s hopes of building 45 new reactors by 2030.

Interest in new types of reactors seemed to hint at least at the beginnings of a new start. But President-elect Obama has been lukewarm on nuclear. He acknowledges that nuclear is one of several viable components of the nation’s energy portfolio – the current 104-plant fleet provides 20% of America’s electricity – but has questioned its safety while emphasizing a need to diversify the nation’s energy mix with more wind, solar and other renewable sources.

“That’s sort of like my wife saying she’d support divorce under certain situations,” says William Kovacs, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce’s vice president of environment, technology, and public affairs.

In fact, the Barack Obama/Joe Biden New Energy for America Plan, while recognizing that nukes provide 70% of our non-carbon-generated electricity, says that “before an expansion of nuclear power is considered, key issues must be addressed including: security of nuclear fuel and waste, waste storage and proliferation.” It goes on to say that the team of President-elect Obama and incoming Vice President Joe Biden “do not believe that Yucca Mountain is a suitable site as a long-term repository for spent nuclear designed for long-term storage. In any case, the earliest the storage site could open would be 2017, and that was before Republicans lost control of the Senate.

With Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., firmly opposed to nuclear waste storage in his home state – and with the Obama administration ready to hold the industry’s feet to the regulatory fire – any plans to expand the nuclear industry in the United States now face a high hurdle.

But nuclear proponents are hardly impotent. The Nuclear Energy Institute, the industry’s most powerful lobbying group, helped craft the Energy Policy Act of 2005 with more than $12 billion in subsidies for nukes.

Maintaining nuclear energy’s current 20% share of generation would require building three reactors every two years starting in 2016, based on U.S. Department of Energy forecasts. Right now, some 17 companies and consortia are pursuing licenses for more than 30 nuclear power plants with the Nuclear Regulatory Commission.

But the last operating license for a nuclear plant in the United States was issued in 1978, and the approval process takes a minimum of 24 months after site approval, which can take years. Expect lots of public comment and infighting in Washington, as applications wind their way through the approval process at the NRC.

Meanwhile, the rest of the world is racing ahead with plans to up the ante in the nuclear power game. There are currently 440 nuclear reactors in 31 countries that generate about 16% of the world’s electricity.

Uranium-fueled nuclear energy is rapidly gaining global acceptance as a clean, reliable alternative to such dirty-burning fossil fuels as coal and oil. In a twin bid to combat global warming and keep up with soaring demand for electricity, countries are rushing to build nuclear power plants. Under current projections, 630 reactors will be operating in 55 countries by 2030.

It’s the new technologies those reactors are designed around that are aimed at allaying the public’s perception about the safety of nuclear power. Toshiba Plant & System Services, which has built 112 plants in the past 12 years (more than any other company), is working on a “mininuke,” according to Forbes magazine. Called the “4S” (short for Super-Safe, Small and Simple), it uses a bath of molten sodium to produce steam twice as hot as steam from water-cooled reactors. The 4S can crank out as much as 50 megawatts of power, easily enough to fire up a small factory, or to service an entire town that’s located off the main power grid.

On top of that, the mininuke can go 30 years without refueling, as opposed to typical reactors, which must be fed every 18 months. And the 4S will be safer, because the reactor core is deep underground, well protected against a terrorist attack or earthquakes.

About the Author
Don Miller is a Contributing Writer at Money Morning

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