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US to cut funds for two renewable energy sources

Geothermal and hydropower are mature enough for private enterprise to take the lead, the government says.

By Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / September 15, 2006

Out at the Wanapum Dam on the Columbia River, a new turbine is being tested that generates more electricity, but won't kill so many fish – thanks to research dollars from Uncle Sam.

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Down in California's Long Valley, on the Sierra Nevada range, federal researchers are working to boost efficiency of geothermal energy, which uses the earth's natural heat to generate power.

But renewable energy advocates may have to kiss goodbye those and other research projects. The US Department of Energy (DOE) is quitting the hydropower and geothermal power research business – if Congress will let it.

Declaring them "mature technologies" that need no further funding, the Bush administration in its FY 2007 budget request eliminates hydropower and geothermal research, venerable programs with roots in the energy crises of the 1970s.

"What we do well is research and funding of new, novel technologies," says Craig Stevens, chief spokesman for the DOE. "From a policy perspective, geothermal and hydro are mature technologies. We believe the market can take the lead on this at this point."

Still, "zeroing out" such research could end up being a penny-wise, pound-foolish move, some energy advocates say. Any savings from the cuts would be nil since all of the nearly $24 million ($1 million from hydropower and $23 million from geothermal) research funding would go to other programs such as biofuels.

"I'm just astonished the department would zero out these very small existing budgets for geothermal and hydro – it makes no sense at all," says V. John White, executive director of the Center for Energy Efficiency and Renewable Technologies, an environmental group based in Sacramento, Calif. "These are very important resources for our energy future that could replace the need for a lot of coal-fired power plants."

Indeed, the costs of lost opportunities from dropping such research could be enormous in the long run, recent federal studies suggest.

Geothermal is a case in point. Its power plants need water, heat, and permeable rocks no deeper than about three miles beneath the surface to generate affordable electricity, says Karl Gawell, executive director of the Geothermal Energy Association, a Washington trade group.

Today more than 60 geothermal plants with the capacity of about three big coal-fired power plants produce less than 1 percent of the nation's electricity.

Yet geothermal holds vast potential – at least 30,000 megawatts of identified resources developable by 2050 and more unidentified resources, much of it in Western states, the National Renewable Energy Laboratory reported in May.

Research aims at new technologies that can use underground zones with good heat but little water and those with lower temperature rocks deeper in the earth.

"The idea that geothermal is a mature technology that doesn't need further research doesn't even pass the laugh test," says Mr. Gawell. "What they're saying is that if your program doesn't have to do with biofuels, wind, or solar, you won't have a program."