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Alternative-Energy Spending Fizzles Out

Congress ends without funding research programs, as the United States falls behind in alternative technologies.
January 4, 2007

Despite the hype and numerous promises that began 2006, including President Bush’s declared plans to curb the United States’ addiction to oil, the 109th Congress ended the year without allocating funding for proposed increases in research spending for alternative energy.

Although Bush proposed a fiscal-year 2007 budget that would have increased funding for some renewable-energy resources, including solar and biomass, as well as for research into hydrogen fuel-cell vehicles, the budget was not passed. Instead, Congress passed a stop-gap continuing resolution that will keep the budget at 2006 levels, which, because of inflation, amounts to a cut in funding, and it specifically decreases funding in some cases. For now, the Department of Energy is suspending funding for new projects, a spokesperson says. According to Kei Koizumi, director of the R&D Budget and Policy Program at the American Association for the Advancement of Science, other research agencies are cutting funding for ongoing projects by 20 percent because of budget uncertainty. This makes it difficult for labs to hire the researchers or buy the equipment necessary to continue work.

The new Congress, which convenes today, is expected to extend the stop-gap measure through the rest of the year in order to focus efforts on the president’s fiscal-year 2008 budget, which will be announced in February.

Some experts are warning that the cuts come just as much more money is needed to address energy-security concerns such as unstable oil prices and global warming. “We spent $9 billion last year on the strategic defense initiative R&D,” says Joseph Romm, founder and director of the Center for Energy and Climate Solutions, who headed the Office of Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy under President Clinton. Romm says the budget “for all energy efficiency and all renewable energy is something like a billion. Given [that] the scale of the problem with global warming and our oil imports is so humongous, we’re hardly addressing the issue at all.”

Ernest Moniz, director of the MIT Energy Initiative, says that MIT-based studies suggest that money for nuclear power and better coal technology needs to be double what it is now. And although similar studies on renewable energies have not yet been done, he says that renewable energies are probably underfunded to the same degree. Michael Eckhart, president of the American Council on Renewable Energy, based in Washington, D.C., says renewable-energy research funding should be three times what it is today.

One concern is that the pipeline from basic research to an affordable commercial technology is decades long: if new research isn’t currently feeding this pipeline, it could run dry just when growing energy demand worldwide means that new products are needed more than ever. “If the government research funding is being squeezed significantly, it tends to hit the beginning of the pipeline, which to a certain extent you don’t see for a few years,” Moniz says. “But you will see it down the road. We’ll be paying the price.”

“We’ve lulled ourselves into thinking we’re the leading country in renewable-energy technology because we were the early leader,” Eckhart says. “But we’ve gotten old, and soft, and underfunded. We are simply not competitive in the world market anymore.” Indeed, he says that countries like Germany, Japan, China, and India are now the primary manufacturers of technologies that were originally developed with U.S. funding. “Of the largest ten wind-turbine manufacturers, the only U.S. company is GE,” Eckhart says. “Nine of the ten are non-U.S. companies. Of the largest ten solar-cell manufacturers in the world, none are U.S. companies.”

Perhaps more important in the short term than funding energy research is changing government policy, say some experts. Technology exists today that can reduce emissions from power plants and cut petroleum use, but it is not being put to use. If a price were put on carbon emissions, Moniz says, “that would be a huge influence almost immediately in terms of what existing technologies industry deploys.”

To develop carbon-free sources of energy and reduce petroleum dependence, Romm says the United States needs a program on the same scale–relative to GDP–as the Manhattan Project or the Apollo program. It would mean spending tens of billions of dollars on basic and applied research, and commercialization of existing technologies. “We have to go whole hog with the technologies that we have now,” Romm says. “At the same time, we have to develop new technologies so that after we’ve spent 20 years deploying what we have, we have another go-around of technologies.”

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