American Electric Power

Moving beyond coal. Maybe

April 5, 2011: 3:47 PM ET
Image representing Google as depicted in Crunc...

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What are the keys to leveraging alternative sources of energy and moving beyond coal?

By David Whitford, editor-at-large

Bill Weihl, Google's (GOOG) energy czar, suggests two new ideas: Encourage new technology through investments in R&D; and "generate market pull" with consumer incentives plus government procurement mandates. Can we get to low emissions without nuclear? "Probably," says Weihl, "but I hate to take it off the table."

Mike Morris, CEO of American Electric (AEP), one of the largest electricity producers in the country, wants to build new high-capacity transmission lines to get alternative energy from where it's produced to where it's needed. Easier said than done. While the feds have broad authority over placement of gas pipelines, not so with transmission lines.

Morris says Harry Reid once asked him how much money he needed to modernize his grid. None, he said, just the authority to site them. For while Morris thinks transmission lines are "things of beauty," not a lot of people agree with him. American Electric has a transmission line in Virginia and West Virginia that took 16 years to gain approval, he says, and a year and a half to build.

And this from Phil Moeller, commissioner of the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission: "If we can electrify the transportation sector, we can go a long way toward lowering carbon in the atmosphere." Especially in conjunction with new smart-grid technology, he says, that would allow drivers to charge their cars at night when demand (and cost) is low.

Yet, let's not give up on coal, says Morris, even if the goal is greenhouse gas reduction. Speaking of carbon sequestration, he says: "The capture works, the storage works, but it's not inexpensive."

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