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26 Comments

  1. Let’s not forget the huge profit Mr. Buffet made with the Constellation deal in the short term, buying a severely undervalued company with more physical assets than the asking price, at the time it reminded me of Mr. Potter in “It’s a Wonderful Life”.

    1. @Cpragman – by your comment, I presume you think that means that there is no way that Buffett could be antinuclear? Why is it so hard for people to understand that a tiny involvement in the nuclear industry does not prove that a company or a person favors the expanded use of nuclear technology to produce power in competition with coal, oil and natural gas?
      Businessmen often follow a strategy that is not dissimilar from that embodied in this cliche – “Keep your friends close and your enemies closer.”
      Businesses often make strategic investments in competitors in order to handicap those competitors and enhance the profitability of their primary business.

  2. I think there is a bigger picture, econmically speaking, that is being missed here. That is the reality that, right now, Nuclear Power plants are probably at an historic peak in expense. That is, from what I can tell, it really seems to me that right now, nuclear power plants are about as expensive as they will ever be (well, ok, maybe not *ever*, but at least for a very long time).
    I’ve tried to do a little research on the economics of nuclear power, and from what I can tell, almost everyone agrees that building a nuclear power plant in the U.S. right now is way more expensive than it *should be*. The figures I’ve seen is that Europe has been building nuclear plants for about $4Bn/GW, and China can build them for about $1Bn/GW.
    Now, I realize we’ll probably never be able to get it as low as China, but if we can get the construction costs down to $4Bn/GW, that would represent about a 60 PERCENT decrease in the price of nuclear power.
    If we can revive our nuclear industry, and reform the NRC regulatory system to lower the costs/delays associated with licensing nuclear, most people, including Rod Adams himself, who has written several times on economies of scale, and how that can bring down the costs of nuclear plants pretty considerably, seem to agree that we can and should be able to bring the costs of building nuclear down.
    So, what does this have to do with this article? Well, who wants to be the guys that buy the $10Bn-$12Bn power plants right now that will begin the nuclear revival, and then, in 10-20 years, be faced with competing with power plants built for 20, 30, maybe even 50 percent less cost. What is the incentive to be the ‘first mover’ in the nuclear industry?
    It’s kind of like HD Big Screen TV’s. A few years ago, they cost like 5000-6000 dollars. Luckily, since they are a luxury/entertainment item, there is a market of people who are rich enough that they bought the HD TVs at that price. Then after a year or two the prices came down to like 2000-3000. Now, you can get large screen HD TVs for about $1000.
    But, in the power generation business, I think, there is no ‘luxury market’. At $4Bn-$5Bn a nuclear power plant would be a great, great investment – if you could build a nuclear power plant for $4Bn, today, you would have all the pricing power that Warren Buffett could dream of – because you’d be producing power cheaper than all of your competition. But at $10Bn-$12Bn, NPP’s are just too darn expensive.
    Personally, I believe there is a good argument for providing some sort of economic competitiveness “insurance” to early movers in the nuclear industry. Something along the lines of this. . . a scheme to share the benefits of economies of scale more or less evenly with all nuclear operators, for some period of time. If the nuclear industry can get up and running, and start creating economies of scale that lower the costs of building additional nuclear plants, there should be a tax on the new, cheaper plants, which is given to the companies that built the first, more expensive plants, to basically levellize the capital costs across builders chronologically.
    That way, for example, if I build a $10Bn nuclear plant right now, and other companies like me make that forward-looking investment also make such investements early, and in 10 years you build a new plant for $7.5Bn, since you are getting the benefits of the investements made by me and other early adopters, you would be forced (for a limited time), to basically share a small portion of your revenue with the early builders, so that the early builders can also share in the benefits of the economies of scale they helped to create.

    1. @Jeff- you are close. Yes, just as in most new products (and new nuclear plants are as much a “new product” as big screen HDTVs were a new product in a long line of televisions) the early adopters will experience higher per unit costs.
      The key is that not all electricity suppliers are in the same competitive situations. Even if you stay within the United States and its territories, the selling price of electricity varies far more widely than one might expect. Because nuclear fuel is so energy dense, the fuel cost component is relatively flat around the US. That is most certainly NOT the case for fossil fuel power plants or even for weak and intermittent renewable energy sources. Though fuel cost is only about 20-25% of the O&M cost for nuclear and O&M is only about 20% of the total levelized cost of electricity from a nuclear plant (if your spreadsheet is built on the assumption that the plant value disappears as soon as the loan is paid off) that is NOT the case for fossil fuel power plants. In some fossil plants, the cost of fuel represents 90% of the total cost of power so every single kilowatt hour costs just as much as the last one for the generator. For a nuclear plant operator, kilowatt hours have almost no marginal cost – all of the cost is in the initial investment and in basic ownership and manning.
      What all of that information has told me is that there are “early adopter” situations in nuclear, just like there were in HDTV. Those early adopters will have no difficulty making continuing profits, just like the folks that bought expensive HDTVs are probably still using those devices because the marginal cost of continuing to do so is still cheaper than throwing out the device and buying a new, less expensive model.
      (In the high power cost areas, there is little chance that a later competitor will come in try to compete with an existing, more initially expensive nuclear plant – that early adopter can simply lower his selling price long enough to keep the competitor from successfully raising funds. He can do that because of the low marginal cost of generating nuclear electricity once you have the plant in place.

      1. @Rod, yeah, that’s a good point. It’s going to take some time for econmies of scale to significantly reduce the price of a new plant – say 7-10 years. It can take 10 years to get a plant built once you decide to build it. So, if a would-be competitor waits 10 years for the price to come down, then takes 10 years to get the plant built, the ‘first mover’ will have already been operating for 10 years, at possibly higher margins than necessary simply to make the mortgage payments, and could then potentially use some of the ‘saved profits’ from the first 10 years to lower their prices for the next 10 years until the mortgage is payed off, at which point they could dramatically lower their prices while the ‘new’ plant is still paying off it’s mortgage. So, as you say, the very fact that’s even a possibility would probably be enough to scare off most competitors. . . (e.g. there are probably other markets with *no* nuclear reactors right now, or too few, which would be ‘greener pastures’ than trying to compete with an existing nuclear plant, so nuclear doesn’t really have to be a zero-sum game right now).

  3. To what extent was it local conditions and low energy demand in Payette County and nearby electricity markets that did in the economics of the proposal? Idaho gets 75% of it’s electricity from affordable (and relatively on-demand) hydro, there is no great surge of new demand coming down the pipeline, Payette County has a whopping 20K population, and Boise (the nearest city of any substantial size) 200K, and they were looking at a brand new 1,700 MW baseload power plant from Mitsubishi (enough to power 1.7 million homes). New nuclear is a 70 year investment in a region, and a very long term outlook for public utilities and investors. Presumably, state regulations/political environment and low population density makes project attractive from a “not in my back yard” standpoint, but minus new investments in the grid and HVDC transmission, who were they hoping to sell this energy to? WSJ reports: “the Idaho plant could furnish electricity to PacifiCorp and other utilities that MidAmerican owns in western states, as well as to unaffiliated utility companies. Most states would require utilities to demonstrate that the nuclear company was able to furnish electricity more cheaply than other sources, including utility-owned plants.” If this idea has any merit (and I don’t know the specifics of the long range plan), it’s kind sad that Buffett scapegoated initial plant construction costs as his central concern.

    1. Wouldn’t a power plant in Idaho be close enough to sell power into Washington, Oregon, California, Utah, and Nevada? I guess that’s where the “new investments in the grid and HVDC transmission” that you mentioned comes in. . . theoretically close enough, yes, but lacking the actual infrastructure currently to do that?

      1. @Jeff Schmidt. Seems like it’s worth considering G. Craven’s comment on this topic above. China understands that HVDC and nuclear power work together very well. China currently has the highest voltage capacity and lowest loss DV and AC lines in the world, and an integrated HVDC and AC backbone, and are breaking ground on up to 30 new reactors. It’s hard to argue against such a disciplined and thought out approach? I’m simply at my wits end trying to convince people here of the same. It sounds like you might be the first to buck a “party trend” and step out on your own and argue on the merits of a good idea (simply because it is something that works for the industry). Care to make it official? Idaho Samizdat (looking at NRG estimates) suggested the cost of adding new transmission to a greenfield site (to facilitate nearby transmission to Washington, Oregon, Utah, and Nevada) may be as high as $500 million (certainly much more to expand transmission to distant markets with HVDC). These are real dollars that stand in the way of making an already very expensive project feasible in such a location. Seems like a waste to shoot yourself in the foot right about the same time you seek to start your race up an already steep hill (simply because you have a grudge with another energy resource). This is the general “you” in this case.
        I always thought Buffet was more interested in rail because of future opportunities in shipping and transportation (and not coal, per se). He made many of these investments in the run-up to $140 oil. Regardless, he wins on either side of the equation with climate legislation and changing outlook for coal (which probably goes a long ways to explain why he is so successful as an industrialist and financier).

        1. @EL
          I have considered the theories that Gwyneth mentions above, but I have also done a lot of homework on Berkshire Hathaway and listened very carefully to the explanations that Warren Buffett himself has given for his success. Though his words of wisdom from his famous letters to his investors are initially directed at only those investors, over time they leak out in various ways. He has been at the business of investing for many decades, so it is not hard to find out what drives his thoughts and how he does business.
          As he told BusinessWeek just a week or so ago, his primary investment technique is to seek companies that have a market position that offers them “pricing power” for what he has determined to be a long enough period of time to make his investment pay off. He even defines what the phrase “pricing power” means to him – the ability to raise prices without being worried that a competitor might come in an undercut that price increase. Some of his long time successful investments have included such entities as the Washington Post and Coca-Cola. Though much is often made of his friendship with Bill Gates, Buffett has almost completely shied away from the high tech industry – he makes that point many times in his writing. He does not like highly competitive industries that are dependent on rapid innovation where a product that is selling well one month could become a has been several months later.
          This investment strategy has done very well over the years and allowed Berkshire Hathaway to accumulate about $130 billion in cash and assets from a far smaller base. It has enabled Buffett and Munger to become some of the world’s richest men. It has provided solid returns for those people who were smart enough to invest their money with Buffett early on and allow him to do the detailed homework required to identify those special situations where a company with “pricing power” can be purchased at a reasonable price that allows future growth.
          However, I hope that you can see how limited that strategy is for the basis of a large, growing and prosperous economy that has hundreds of millions of people who cannot simply keep paying higher prices for the same products year after year.
          The idea that Buffett bought Burlington Northern for any reason other than the fact that it has a strong market position for hauling the freight that it already hauls – a product mix that includes a large fraction of coal – is simply not defensible based on detailed knowledge of his investing strategy and his studious avoidance of innovation and competition.
          As you said, Buffett made his investments in coal during the run up to $140 per barrel oil at a time when there were a large number of new coal fired power stations on the books. He recognized a basic fact – people are not going to do without electricity if they have a choice. They are not going to be happy with a system that produces unreliable power and they are not going to be happy with a system that passed on the fuel costs of $10+ per million BTU natural gas. They will seek a reliable and less expensive source.
          That is why I believe Buffett and his investors are willing to sabotage the only energy source that has a chance of being cheaper than coal. Nuclear energy destroys the coal industry’s pricing power, and being seen as the cheap and reliable option is the primary advantage that comes from burning coal.

        2. @EL
          WRT HVDC – if you have been following what I keep saying – I do not believe that building a large number of very large facilities on a single site along with a new and expensive transmission infrastructure makes all that much sense. I believe that we have a pretty well established grid that is based on relatively well distributed power plants located fairly close to the customer loads. What we need to do is to evolve that power system by installing new power plants on the same sites as the old ones that need to be retired. The new plants should provide roughly the same amount of power – perhaps a bit more in each location to allow for growth.
          That concept requires a variety of power plant sizes – including 125 MWe nuclear plant modules that generally come in sets of two. 🙂 It also includes 45 MWe modules that come in sets of 6 or 12, 25 MWe modules that can be put at the fringes of the system, and even 10 MWe modules that can be put in places where there is no long distance connectivity but there is still an existing local distribution system. Of course, the range of options also includes 500 MWe converters that consume both fissile and fertile materials, 1120 MWe simplified versions of the dominant PWR with passive safety features, 1350 MWe simplified versions of the competitive BWR, and even 1600 or 1700 MWe PWRs. One size does not fit all sites; fission is a flexible alternative to combustion.
          The advantage that all of those nuclear options have is that they offer low fuel costs, no local air or water pollution, and require a tiny fuel resupply infrastructure because of the natural density of their heat source.

          1. From the same standpoint, it might indicate (to a small degree) why Buffet was not particularly bullish on a new nuclear power plant. There is very little marginal cost involved with the fuel, so you are basically running the plant in a reliable way over a long period of time and any price differences are coming from very small O&M and materials costs. Looking at his philosophy and outlook, he might be better served considering a uranium mine, or conversion plant (or something like the US Enrichment Corporation), which does have some of these pricing elements (depending on where he thinks the individual company or sector is placed with respect to “values” investing).
            I won’t get into here whether the grid “is pretty well established” as you describe. I think there’s widespread consensus that it is not, is incredibly stressed, has large loses and bottlenecks, and some pretty serious challenges meeting future demand and distribution (regardless of any other changes to supply

            1. @EL
              I hope you are a better anthropologist than a cost accountant. You expose a significant level of misunderstanding in the following comment.
              There is very little marginal cost involved with the fuel, so you are basically running the plant in a reliable way over a long period of time and any price differences are coming from very small O&M and materials costs. Looking at his philosophy and outlook, he might be better served considering a uranium mine, or conversion plant (or something like the US Enrichment Corporation), which does have some of these pricing elements (depending on where he thinks the individual company or sector is placed with respect to “values” investing).
              The terms “price” and “cost” are very important and very different. Price is what the market will pay for your output. Cost is what you have to pay for all of the inputs that allow you to produce that output. Having “pricing power” means that you are in a market where you can choose how much to charge and your customers will pay that amount rather than either refusing to purchase anything at all or by choosing to avoid your price by going to your competitor.
              Electric utilities, if they are not regulated, have the ultimate in pricing power. They are a monopoly and customers have very few options if they want to live a modern life and take advantage of modern conveniences. (Wholesale power generators are not utilities – they do not deliver power to ultimate customers.)
              Uranium mining is exceeding competitive – the customers can choose to buy exactly the same product from a number of different suppliers. Miners are subject to the whims of the market – if they try to raise their price a competitor will gladly step in an take the sale.
              Railroads that serve coal mines have the ability to set their prices because their customers have no choice in supplier. Their only real choice is to determine that the price is so high that they will make the investment required to use an alternative fuel source. That is not an easy or quick choice.

                1. @EL – you are confusing a utility with a merchant power generator. A utility company actually delivers the product to end consumers. In some areas, the utilities are still “integrated” so they take care of the entire product cycle – fuel purchase, generation, transmission and delivery. In some jurisdictions, the electricity system is disaggregated.
                  In my home region, the southeast, most of the areas are still under the old fashioned (far better, IMHO) system of integrated, rate regulated utilities with an obligation to serve.
                  With regard to your discussion about pricing, you still do not get it. I am not advocating for giving companies pricing power – I am saying that Warren Buffett looks for that characteristic as his primary investment selection metric. For him, pricing power means the ability to unilaterally raise prices, not the ability to sell at market determined, temporarily high prices that could fall without notice and without influence by the sellers.
                  He would avoid uranium mining like the plague. Take a look at the pricing history of that commodity over the past decade – the producers have no control and the gyrations are pretty wild.

  4. One might approach Berkshire Hathaway’s rail investment with rail mounted 24/7 power plants that can be moved to follow demand with lower line lose than even “Dumb Grid”. However, with Warren Buffet’s pricing strategy, he is over invested in rails and lacks knowledge on emerging new technologies deemed “Dusruptive Technology” by the DOE and Patent offices. To impliment a price advantage over coal and natural gas he needs to research new solutions to make his rail investment pay it’s way in rail development. Where is the salesman to make such a point to Berkshire Hathaway?

  5. The electricity market is heavily distorted with fossil plants not having to pay for the emission of greenhouse gases and renewables being propped up with production tax credits/grants, state renewable energy mandates, accelerated depreciation schedules,… Warren Buffet would invest in power generated from gerbils running in exercise wheels if the government incentives were adequate. The truth is, in the absence of further regulatory table tilting, fracked natural gas will be crowding out renewables and nuclear for the foreseeable future.

  6. Lane Allgood, who heads a pro-nuclear power organization in Idaho, told me a few years ago that because of the small population of Payette county and surrounding areas, there would not be a sufficient number of electricity customers within reasonable transmission-line distance. For that reason Buffet withdrew support for the project. As has been pointed out above, Buffet remains interested in nuclear power–a sign of that being his major investment in Constellation.
    Greenpeace and its like-minded organizations made much of Buffet’s withdrawal from the Payette County project, but these antis are just spinning and cherry-picking, as usual.
    There’s a theory that Buffet bought the Burlington line for the transmission lines along the tracks.

  7. Jeff: I’ve been criticized for this thinking before, but I think some of the role of ‘first movers’ will be played by China. Rod has pointed out that the expertise of the tradespeople etc. is not (completely?) transferable, but I believe that after Westinghouse/Shaw complete the 4 AP1000’s they are building in China, they will have more confidence in what they are doing and may offer a lower price. In addition, perhaps the NRC will actually be able to look at data from these construction projects and eliminate some of the regulatory delay. It’s a shame that we are not ‘leaders’ anymore, but this might be a likely route to seeing the nuclear ‘revival’ take hold in the US.

  8. To me, “pricing power” is another way of saying “rent seeking”. That’s one of the failure modes of capitalist economies — they can degenerate into zero-sum competition for rent. Perhaps Henry George was onto something there…

  9. Much though I loath coal burners, I have to admit that from a standpoint of risk/benefit they’re probably a reasonably good investment for the time being. Realistically we’re going to be burning coal for a while.
    As for nuclear power, yes it is the best form of power generation from a scientific and overall economic standpoint, but if you’re concerned primarily with investment risk then it’s admittedly a bit of a problem. I invest in nuclear energy because I support it and want to be part of the solution and not the problem. I would not invest in coal because I don’t want to touch something so dirty and unethical. Still, I would not stake my retirement on nuclear energy – at least not in the United States. I might consider investing heavily in contractors that are building plants in China, Japan, Korea or elsewhere, but in the US it’s too much of a risk.
    Why nuclear power is a risk can be summed up in three letters: NRC. This is the government agency which regulates nuclear energy in the US and since its creation it has done nothing but make nuclear energy as expensive and damn near impossible to build as it can. If you want an investment strategy, it probably is a good idea not to pick something that the full weight of the federal government is committed to destroying.
    The NRC is prone to changing the rules mid-game and likes to use the excuse of “public participation” or involving local governments as a means of giving almost anyone a pass to stonewall a reactor, even after construction has started, or for that matter finished! Thanks to a combination of the NRC and state government a perfectly good reactor in Long Island was constructed and never operated. Worse still, the NRC the required that the whole reactor be decommissioned at many millions of dollars cost simply because it had briefly reached criticality in some tests.
    The extreme cost overruns that the NRC has helped bring about killed Marblehead and Bellafonte, not to mention preventing many plants from expanding. In the case of Seabrook, NRC regulations allowed all state and local governments within the region to stonewall the plants operations. Despite not being located in Massachusetts, the state of Massachusetts was able to keep Seabrook from opening by using these NRC regulations. The NRC refused to hold Mass to its obligations but did prevent Seabrook from opening. Seabrook eventually did open, but only after the utility that constructed it went bankrupt.
    There’s no reason to think that the NRC has changed. They talk about it, but they haven’t shown much. Today there are projects in the US to build reactors which were first proposed in the 1990’s and which submitted letters of intent to begin the approval process as early as 2003. These projects are still many years or decades away from moving a single shovel of earth. On average a nuclear plant may cost a half a billion dollars in regulatory paperwork before final approval is even granted. The NRC only recently approved the AP-1000, despite the fact that this reactor is really just a larger version of the AP-600. The approval process took more than ten years and has cost hundreds of millions if not billions of dollars.
    Unfortunately, as long as the NRC exists, nuclear energy will simply not be as economical or as low risk an investment as it should be. It may be the best solution technically, but you’re banking on the belief that the NRC can change and history shows that they either can’t or just won’t.

  10. What happened to my post?? Surely a little well-deserved triumphalism isn’t that offensive!

  11. @Rod. Any thoughts on the Oracle of Omaha’s investments in Wind:
    From 2010 shareholder report: “MidAmerican will have 2,909 megawatts of wind generation in operation by the end of 2011, more than any other regulated electric utility in the country. The total amount that MidAmerican has invested or committed to wind is a staggering $5.4 billion. We can make this sort of investment because MidAmerican retains all of its earnings, unlike other utilities that generally pay out most of what they earn.”
    Looks like there’s another T. Boone Pickens on the block, and he’s out to turn midwestern farmers (challenged by domestic economic circumstances, loan indebtedness, and global agricultural competitiveness) into energy producers. A win-win for rural residents, or a T Boone for Northern Natural Gas? Let’s see if he purchases an electric transmission and distribution company next (to add to his many investments in energy and transportation technologies and infrastructure)?

    1. @EL
      So how much cash did taxpayers provide to one of the richest men in America to convince him to invest in wind?

      1. In other words, Buffet is out to milk government subsidies.
        It’s a good way to make a lot of money these days. Have you checked the US’s deficit spending recently?

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