Alternative Energy Watch: US Energy Policy Debate Kicks-off; Saudi Arabia Looks to Solar & Nuclear Growth; Hydropower Gets a Boost

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Policy stories have piled up today in alternative energy and energy, led off by a response from the Republican Party to President Obama’s energy speech. The GOP has introduced a bill in the US Senate called The 3-D Act: Domestic Jobs, Domestic Energy and Deficit Reduction Act of 2011.

The Republican response to the president’s call for more investment in alternative energy is to continue its long-standing push for more domestic drilling and less regulation. The GOP wants to open the Alaska National Wildlife Refuge to drilling, and expand off-shore drilling in the eastern part of the Gulf of Mexico. The bill also seeks to limit the time allowed for agency and judicial review for drilling permits.

Interestingly, nothing proposed either by President Obama or Senate Republicans will do anything to lower gasoline prices at the pump. Both plans are medium- to long-term responses to high prices and US dependence on imported oil. From the look of things, we’re about to begin a political game that has been played before with no results.

A new wrinkle in the push for alt energy sources could have come from the US Bureau of Reclamation, which has just released a study of installing hydropower generation at federally-owned dams, canals, and other hydro facilities.  According to the bureau, there are 70 facilities in the western US out of 530 it evaluated at which hydro-generation could be developed to yield as much as 1.2 million megawatts of electricity annually. That’s enough to serve about 85,000 homes.

The federal government would not do the development, however. That would be left up to cities and private developers. The bureau is offering a lease contract for up to 40 years to any non-federal entity that uses a bureau facility to generate electric power. A “Lease of Power Privilege Agreement” would not require a developer to obtain a license from the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC). Presumably that would speed up development.

This plan might have had some takers a few years ago, but with municipalities struggling with budget deficits and hydropower not a particular favorite of environmentalists, it’s hard to see how this report will lead to any substantial new hydropower development.

In Saudi Arabia, where water is scarce and oil is not, the government is considering a plan to spend up to $100 billion to convert some electricity generation from oil-fired to solar and nuclear. A report from Bloomberg states that the Saudis may announce details of their plan on April 3rd.

Every megawatt generated by an alternative source means that the country has more oil to export. Saudi Arabia burns the equivalent of about 800,000 barrels of oil a day to generate electricity. It wouldn’t take long for the country to export enough oil at $100/barrel to pay the proposed $100 billion tab for solar and nuclear generation.

A much smaller scale conversion to alternative energy has been announced in Virginia. Dominion Resources, Inc. (NYSE: D), one of the country’s largest power generators, will convert three of its coal-fired power plants in Virginia to burn biomass. The three plants currently provide about 65 megawatts each of peaking power. Following the conversion, the plants are expected to provide 50 megawatts each of baseload power.

Finally, privately held BrightSource Energy, Inc. has secured another round of venture funding, this time for $201 million. The company has raised a total of $530 million in private equity in addition to $1.3 billion in loan guarantees from the federal government. BrightSource is building the 392-megawatt Ivanpah solar thermal power plant in southern California. The company was included in our list of the 25 most important alt energy companies.

Paul Ausick