If there is a silver lining to be found in the current economic crisis, it's that the United States now stands at the threshold of a historic opportunity to achieve real energy independence. Even better, a sustainable energy future based on a diverse portfolio of conservation measures and domestic energy sources that are green, abundant and cost competitive also promises to create significant job growth, much of it right here in Western Pennsylvania.
Economic growth depends upon abundant and affordable electric power, and U.S. electricity demand is expected to increase by at least 25 percent over the next 20 years.
To keep pace with rising demand and remain competitive in the global economy, the United States needs to add significant new electricity-generating capacity here at home. Fossil fuels, such as coal and natural gas, along with nuclear energy, represent the largest sources of electricity today.
New coal-combustion technology has made dramatic improvements in reducing emissions, and must remain an important component of America's energy portfolio for years to come.
The Marcellus shale deposits, the source of a natural gas field deep underground here in Western Pennsylvania and in other parts of Appalachia, is an important, newly discovered resource that could provide 15 to 20 years' worth of domestic natural gas supply while creating 100,000 jobs, making it one of America's most significant potential energy resources.
But any new proposals to expand fossil-fuel combustion will have to be weighed against concerns about greenhouse gases and other pollutants, which are inevitable consequences of these energy sources.
Renewable sources, such as solar, hydro and wind, are also making a greater contribution to our nation's energy supply than ever before and the economics of energy production from these sources are becoming more favorable. But while we need to continue to expand our use of renewables, the fact is that these sources combined comprise only about 10 percent of the total energy capacity in this country, and, even by the most optimistic projections, won't be able to fill the gap in new electricity demand for the foreseeable future.
Nuclear energy is the only source of electricity that produces no greenhouse gases, manages 100 percent of its waste stream and can readily meet America's growing need for electricity.
The nuclear power industry is on the threshold of significant growth both here and around the world. Today, 440 operating nuclear power plants generate 16 percent of the world's electricity. In France, 58 plants generate approximately 80 percent of that country's electricity, and other countries like Belgium, Lithuania and Slovakia derive more than half of their electric power from nuclear power plants.
Here in the United States, 104 nuclear power plants provide 20 percent of our total electricity.
These reactors have been extremely safe and are operating at a record level of efficiency. This performance is the result of an industry-wide commitment to safety and ongoing reactor operator training.
As a result, nuclear energy today is recognized by most scientific and many environmental organizations as an essential response to concerns over global climate change and the need to fuel worldwide economic growth. Three-fourths of Americans now favor the expanded use of nuclear power for electricity generation.
Year after year, the price of fossil fuels has climbed steadily while the cost of nuclear-powered electricity has steadily declined. That's great news for consumers and an economy that stands to realize significant new job creation and lower electricity-production costs with the growth of a domestic nuclear power industry.
In Western Pennsylvania, the prospects are brighter still. Once the capital of America's industrial heartland, our region is now the cradle of a robust and sustainable green energy industry. New businesses providing technologies in nuclear, wind, solar, fuel cells and other forms of green power are growing and thriving here.
Westinghouse Electric Co. is among those companies with bright prospects for the future. For the past four decades, Westinghouse has been the leader in commercial nuclear power in the United States, and we helped found the nuclear power industry right here in the Pittsburgh area. Today, Westinghouse is well positioned to lead the nuclear industry in meeting America's energy needs in the years ahead. In the last four years alone, we have added 4,000 new employees, 40 percent of whom are now living and working in Western Pennsylvania. We expect to hire an additional 500 to 750 new employees per year for the foreseeable future.
A balanced energy portfolio is the cornerstone of the Obama administration's energy policy, one that draws on not only our vast energy resources here at home, but also on our technology and ingenuity to help reduce, and eventually end, our dependence on foreign sources of energy.
We at Westinghouse strongly support this policy and hope that it will be matched with an equally broad approach to energy conservation.
The time has come to seize on this historic opportunity to achieve energy independence, strengthen our national security, improve environmental quality and fuel economic growth for years to come.
Aris S. Candris is the president and chief executive officer of the Westinghouse Electric Co. ( www.westinghouse.com ).