If an economic recovery bumps up U.S. demand, plans to retire coal burners might get pushed back. “I think [coal-fired plants] will have surprising resiliency,” Gabriel says. Harris agrees, especially if utilities have difficulty relicensing their nuclear plants. They may reconsider their coal-plant retirements.

“Our vision is that … the world will have no choice but to burn coal cleanly and use nuclear [power] safely,” says Pierre Gauthier, Alstom U.S. and Canada president and CEO.

Outside the Utility Tool Box

Proponents of renewables are using the disaster at Fukushima to push alternative-energy development, but even wind, geothermal and solar-energy supporters say they cannot replace the massive base-load power provided by nuclear, natural gas and coal.

“You can’t really talk about … one replacing the other,” Harris says. “To build enough wind or solar to replace a nuclear plant, it’s a very large number.” Gabriel says each megawatt of solar photovoltaic takes about five acres.

Jeff Bencik, an energy analyst for New York-based Kaufman Bros., says it would be possible to begin construction of a solar photovoltaic farm almost immediately. About one megawatt a day could be installed on a site, he says, meaning it would take more than three years and 5,000 acres to build a solar PV plant that is roughly equivalent to a nuclear plant.

Even when complete, that solar farm could not produce electricity 24 hours a day, as coal, gas or nuclear can. Bencik says solar power can provide additional electricity during peak demand periods.

Gabriel and others say solar, wind and geothermal can be efficient—for example, smart-grid technology could better match load to generation.

That model of distributed generation, which relies on smaller modules of power spread over a greater geographic area, “is a very long, long road,” Gabriel says. “The challenge is how all these pieces are going to interact together. [This solution] doesn’t make utility engineers happy,” he admits. “It isn’t as easy as flipping a switch on a 650-MW coal plant, but utilities have to face the new generation in which we are living.”

Too expensive for new power?
electricity prices in the U.S. range from $20/MWh to $55/MWh
Price needed
to break even
Construction cost
Solar Photovoltaic
$4,000/per kwH
$4,500/per kwH
$2,000/per kwH
$2,000/per kwH
Natural Gas
$1,000/per kwH
*Higher costs attributed to carbon dioxide emissions mitigation
SOURCE: Jonathan Siegler, chief financial officer for Bluescape Resources