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Solar Scores a Big Win Over Nuclear

Tax benefits are not a differentiating factor. Solar receives a one-time investment tax credit and no production tax credits. But new nuclear units can receive production tax credits, and they are eligible for Solyndra-type federal loan guarantees.

On the revenue side, solar facilities operating in market-based grids are natural peaking and distributed generation facilities. As such, they need no batteries, they capture the day's higher prices, they naturally cease production during hours of low demand, and they can be located near population centers.

New nuclear plants cannot be built near large population centers such as New York, Chicago or Los Angeles. To service their customers, developers must include additional capital expense for miles of new transmission lines and substations. They also incur huge expenditures to access cooling water and to dump trillions of British thermal units of waste heat.

Solar is different. Solar produces no waste heat. Solar farms can be located near population centers and customers. Most solar projects need not invest in new transmission lines.

Nuclear and solar power are both environmentally friendly. Both are carbon-free. Neither source produces any greenhouse gases. Nuclear power even pays for its own waste disposal and liability insurance as part of its production cost.

But unlike solar, nuclear power projects present unacceptably high financial risks. Federal loan guarantees help keep project financing costs low, but they do not protect shareholders. As construction schedules slip and project costs creep upward, shareholders are left holding the bag. The problem is that nobody knows what is inside the bag until it is too late.

Just ask Kansas Gas & Electric, Kansas City Power & Light, Texas Utilities, Public Service Indiana, Long Island Lighting and several other nuclear utilities that lost their bets on nuclear power. While their investments were partially hedged against state rate bases, their shareholders were ultimately forced to sell the utilities for pennies on their original dollar. Even the federal government lost when the Tennessee Valley Authority suspended construction on two of its nuclear units.

The Oracle of Omaha is teaching investors another lesson. Nuclear may be an answer for national policymakers who seek reliable sources of baseload power. But solar is a better financial deal for investors.

On May 4, Real Money Pro's Doug Kass will appear at Berkshire's annual shareholders meeting. As a Berkshire Bear, Doug Kass will participate in a panel to discuss the company's performance with Warren Buffett and Charlie Munger. While Berkshire's holdings in utility assets are substantial, they represent only a small portion their overall portfolio. Check back with Real Money to see if Kass discussed energy with the Oracle.

At the time of publication the author had no position in any of the stocks mentioned.
Glenn Williams has more than 30 years of experience in power and fuels, including design, engineering, construction, startup and operations of large-scale power projects. He has had direct involvement with coal plants, natural gas facilities, and approximately half of the nation's nuclear power facilities and designs energy strategies for regulated and unregulated energy organizations. He received a bachelor's degree in electrical engineering from Northeastern University and a master's degree in technology management from the University of Maryland.

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