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Pumping Up Energy Research

But President Bush’s energy initiative has too little in it to relieve the oil crunch, say experts.
March 9, 2006

While welcoming the attention that President Bush gave to energy research in his State of the Union address this week, many experts are nonetheless concerned that his proposals will make little difference in the nation’s dependence on foreign oil, at least in the short term.

And, they add, don’t expect the administration’s energy strategy to affect prices at the gas pump any time soon.

In his speech, President Bush proposed an Advanced Energy Initiative, which would increase spending on clean energy research technology at the Department of Energy by 22 percent. The initiative includes money for research on clean coal, solar, wind, and nuclear power, as well as for the development of better batteries for hybrid cars, ongoing research into hydrogen fuel cells, and a proposal to derive ethanol from agricultural waste in addition to corn.

According to numbers provided by the White House, the president’s 2007 budget, to be announced within days, will propose a new $148 million Solar America Initiative, an increase of $65 million over the 2006 budget’s funding for solar research, and $44 million for wind energy research, a $5 million increase over 2006.

While these numbers are higher than in recent years, in both cases they just manage to restore spending levels for these technologies to their 1995 levels. James Sweeney, professor of management science and engineering at Stanford University, calls the new initiative “a welcome reversal in the continuing decline in the real value of expenditures on research and development in energy.”

In fact, the numbers are far below their levels in the early 1980s. Adjusted for inflation, the $148 million for solar research is just half the funding in 1982. Similarly, wind energy research in 1981 was funded at three and a half times the level that it is now.

To some observers, the new funding suggests parallels to the 1970s oil crisis, which spurred earlier research. “Jimmy Carter might have said the same thing,” says MIT chemistry professor John Deutch, who was pleased with Bush’s remarks on energy research.

The new funding, however, is a step in the right direction, say many experts, who generally applaud the president’s emphasis on developing environmentally clean forms of electricity generation and his call to break an “addiction to oil.”

They point out, however, that new research is a long-term solution to high energy prices and dependence on foreign oil. Affecting fuel prices in the next several years, they add, will depend on changing the demand for gasoline.

“The technology in cars and light trucks has been steadily improving,” says John Heywood, MIT mechanical engineering professor. “But what we have done is buy bigger, larger, more powerful, faster-accelerating vehicles, with more onboard amenities – and all of that efficiency gain has been used up.”

Further improvements in technology will help, Heywood says, but new technologies will take many years, even after they have been introduced, before they start making any real difference in oil consumption.

Home page image courtesy of Wikimedia.

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