French firm charts future in Md.

December 18, 2008|By Robert Little | Robert Little,

The deal that rescued Constellation Energy Group Inc. yesterday from extinction, ensuring for now a Baltimore future for one of the city's major corporate headquarters, will also lead to the arrival of a new corporation in Maryland with plans to foster an American "renaissance" in the development of nuclear power.

Electricite de France, the French utility giant that agreed to a $4.5 billion partnership with Constellation, said it plans to move its American headquarters to Maryland to lead its expansion into U.S. energy markets. While the move is modest - the operation now employs 12 people in Washington - the company's global plans are not, and analysts described yesterday's announcement as a landmark expansion for the French.

"It's an essential deal for EDF to execute its strategy of becoming one of the leading nuclear power players in the world," said analyst Peter Wirtz of WestLB Research, based in Dusseldorf, Germany.

The company is already a partner with Constellation in plans for four new reactors in the United States, beginning with a third reactor at the Calvert Cliffs plant in Southern Maryland. None of the U.S. reactors has received regulatory approval.

Under the new deal it will also become a 49.99 percent owner of Constellation's existing nuclear facilities, in Maryland and New York. Yesterday it also pledged to spend $20 million to build a visitor and environmental center at Calvert Cliffs.

"I think it's very important for us to be in Maryland and so we have made that commitment," said Jean-Pierre Benque, senior executive vice president for EDF North America.

The Paris-based utility is the world's largest owner of nuclear power plants, with a portfolio that includes 58 reactors in France alone and 17 percent of the world's nuclear power generation. France generates most of its electrical power from nuclear energy, and EDF - 85 percent of which is owned by the French government - has ambitious plans to expand in other countries, including China, Britain and South Africa in addition to the United States. According to EDF's public financial statements, the company has plans to invest $65 billion in new nuclear power plants by 2020.

"EDF is enormous. So the amount of expertise they have in nuclear power is enormous," said Peter Cramton, a professor of economics at the University of Maryland, College Park who advises EDF in designing European electricity auctions. "In my mind, it's very attractive to bring another party with nuclear expertise to the United States."

The Constellation deal follows an $18.5 billion EDF takeover of British Energy Group - Britain's largest electricity producer, with eight nuclear plants - announced in September. Other EDF investments include controlling stakes in two gas fields in the North Sea and investment in a Turkish wind farm.

The company, with $86 billion in sales last year and 158,000 employees worldwide, has been a determined player in alternative power technologies such as nuclear, wind and solar, and says 95 percent of its power plants in France don't emit any carbon dioxide. The company hopes to export its model of powerful, hyper-efficient reactors similar to its flagship Evolutionary Power Reactor in Flamanville, France, which it plans to begin operating in 2012.

It plans the first Chinese version in 2013, the first American version at Calvert Cliffs in 2016, and a British plant in 2017. Through its UniStar joint venture with Constellation, EDF hopes to build more U.S. reactors in New York, Missouri and Pennsylvania.

"They are committed to a noncarbon economy," said state Sen. Jim Rosapepe, a Democrat and a leading voice on energy issues in Maryland.

As a foreign company, EDF will face hurdles from regulators, including a review by the federal Nuclear Regulatory Commission. And as a nuclear power company, it will face opposition from environmental and public interest groups, some of whom are already speaking out.

"Investing billions of dollars in another nuclear power plant is going to distract us from the real solutions," such as energy efficiency and renewable sources, said Johanna Neumann, state director for the Maryland Public Interest Research Group, a consumer and environmental advocacy organization.

"Are we willing to put the Chesapeake Bay in the hands of such a foreign-controlled company for a few more cents on the stock share? I think not," said Andy Galli, Maryland coordinator for Clean Water Action.

But as an investor in Constellation, EDF was largely well-received yesterday. David J. Hammond, a BGE shareholder and former employee, said he thinks Constellation can have a strong future in partnership with the French utility.

"The future is with nuclear power and with EDF, a French company on the leading edge of developing nuclear power," he said.

Hanah Cho, Laura Smitherman, Lorraine Mirabella, Jay Hancock and the Associated Press contributed to this article.


* 2007 sales: $85.8 billion

* 2007 net Income: $8.1 billion

* Number of employees: 158,000

* Headquarters: Paris

* Locations: France, United Kingdom, Italy, Germany, Switzerland

* Number of customers worldwide: 38 million (28 million in France)

* Assets: $272.4 billion

* About EDF: The French company generates and distributes nuclear, hydraulic, wind, solar and geothermal energy to more than 38 million customers in Europe and operates 58 nuclear reactors in France.

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