Nuclear vs. Wind: Earth Day Smackdown

It's Earth Day, and it's not just the alternative energy stocks that are celebrating, but some conventional energy-sector villains.
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NEW YORK (

TheStreet

) -- Thursday is the 40th anniversary of Earth Day, and this year, it's not just the renewable energy companies that are celebrating.

Some conventional -- not to mention controversial -- energy sector players have been given recent reason to celebrate, from nuclear power plant operators to offshore oil and gas drillers.

Branson's Call to Green Entrepreneurs (Forbes)

The fate of federal climate change/carbon legislation remains a moving target in the nation's capitol, but a lot has changed in U.S. federal energy policy in the first four months of 2010 regardless of legislative stalls.

For starters, it takes little more than the laboratory beaker-shaped image of a nuclear power plant to evoke apocalyptic fears across the U.S., and it's been that way for decades. Ever since the Three Mile Island nuclear disaster, being anti-nuclear has been the conventional wisdom.

But President Obama evinced no such reactionary reactor fears himself, announcing early in 2010 that the federal government was going to support the construction of the first new nuclear power plants in decades.

Obama going nuclear is just one of the many

ironies and complexities of energy policy in the U.S. that defies an easy definition of what Earth Day means

, even 40 years into its celebration.

Earth Day began 40 years ago when Senator Gaylord Nelson of Wisconsin toured the site of a massive oil spill off the coast of Santa Barbara, California. This historical bit of Earth Day hagiography presents a 2010 fitting irony. President Obama also announced this year federal support for new offshore oil drilling for the first since the early 1980s.

The run up to this year's Earth Day has also been a period of major attacks on climate science, with the trail of stolen emails showing flawed research and political leanings of climate experts becoming headline fodder across the globe. In some camps, support for climate science, much like an Antarctic ice sheet, seems to be cracking.

Of course, if one wants to look for negative headlines linked to the energy sector, it's never much of a challenge, and it doesn't require an argument about reducing carbon emissions to limit global warming, either.

On Wednesday, the web was flooded with news about the explosion on the

Transocean

(RIG) - Get Report

oil rig in the Gulf of Mexico that critically injured workers.

Just a few weeks ago, the tragedy inside the

Massey Energy

(MEE)

coal mine in West Virginia dominated the headlines. While supporting new nuclear plants and offshore drilling, President Obama had harsh words for Massey Energy and its safety record, or lack thereof.

President Obama's support of nuclear and offshore drilling is really not surprising. It's no concession to "evil" industries, but the pragmatic concessions that are inherent in any effort to pass comprehensive federal energy legislation.

The big industrial conglomerates, like

Siemens

(SI) - Get Report

, support broad energy policies. Even some major environmental groups have accepted the reality of what it will take to get legislation passed that meets the primary goal of reducing carbon emissions.

Offshore drillers, from Transocean to

Noble

(NE) - Get Report

,

Diamond Offshore Drilling

(DO) - Get Report

and

ENSCO

(ESV)

rallied on Obama's thumbs-up on going deep into the waters off the coasts of states from Virginia and Alaska. However, it's probably wise to remember that

the promise of offshore oil riches has often disappointed

U.S. energy companies.

At the same time that the offshore drillers were rallying, wind and solar stocks were struggling with some tough conditions in the U.S.

The past year in the U.S. renewable energy sector has included the typical pitfalls and potential. The

Solar Energy Industry Association recently reported a 37% growth rate for solar power

in the U.S. in 2009.

Yet, the continued growth for the solar industry came amid some sober solar facts too. China continues to race ahead of the U.S. in terms of solar manufacturing -- as well as Chinese government support for solar initiatives.

While the U.S. continues to struggle with a long-term federal support scheme for alternative energy, China's big development bank just announced an $11 billion loan package for its two largest solar companies,

Trina Solar

(TSL)

and

Suntech Power

(STP)

.

By the end of 2009, Chinese manufacturing of solar photovoltaic modules had also come to represent more than 50% of the solar industry output. It was no surprise, therefore, when conventional energy "green" poster boy

BP

(BP) - Get Report

announced last month that it was closing the solar manufacturing plant in Maryland that it had inaugurated to much fanfare three years ago.

The most sobering fact, courtesy of the solar sector, in regards to China's manufacturing lead was that

Evergreen Solar

(ESLR)

couldn't even make the economics of a state-of-the-art solar plant work in the U.S., and is moving a lion's share of its manufacturing to China.

The U.S. solar industry's annual report card also noted that while it has a significant pipeline of 6 gigawatts of solar, even after its 37% percent growth in 2009, solar energy still represented less than 1% of U.S. energy capacity.

Wind stocks have faced some headwinds, too. The construction spending lag in the U.S. has led to a trough point in the wind industry. When

General Electric

(GE) - Get Report

recently reported its first quarter earnings, it let investors know that wind turbine sales were down 30% in the first quarter.

Pure-play wind energy stock

Broadwind Energy

(BWEN) - Get Report

suffered significant share erosion after it said that the U.S. wind market would hit a trough point in the first half of 2010.

Alternative energy is still a young industry in the U.S., and both solar and wind have made major strides even without comprehensive federal policy. On the other hand, it takes years to just build one nuclear power plant, and the benefits to come from offshore drilling are years out on the horizon.

Nevertheless, with the energy mix becoming ever more complex after President Obama's endorsements of nuclear and offshore drilling, the investor is forced to think more broadly about the U.S. energy portfolio of the future.

Thus,

TheStreet

asks its readers during the planet's big party:

Which U.S. energy source do you think will make the most gains by the time we celebrate Earth Day's 50th anniversary?

Take our poll below to learn the consensus of

TheStreet

, and don't hesitate to leave a comment. The Earth, after all, can't speak for itself.

-- Reported by Eric Rosenbaum in New York.

RELATED STORIES:

>>Earth Day: It Ain't Easy Being Green

>>Solar Report Card: is Solar Making the Grade?

>>GE Earnings Show Wind, Solar Sector Weaknesses

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