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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.

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Meanwhile, the more than 5,400 potential "small hydro" power projects could produce about 20,000 megawatts of power, a DOE study in January found. And most would require no new dams at all, shunting a portion of a small river's flow to one side to make electricity. Others would add turbines to dams that don't have them yet.

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Together, high-tech hydropower and geothermal resources could contribute at least enough power to replace more than 100 medium-size coal-fired power plants with emissions-free electricity – about the number now on the drawing board.

There have been moves in the Senate to restore DOE funding for geothermal, but far less support in the House, leaving uncertainty about the outcome, Gawell says. For hydropower, matters are worse. Though $4 million in funding has been proposed in the Senate, nothing has emerged from the House, observers say.

"There's this view that hydropower is a technology that's been around a long time, and there's not much more we can do to improve it – but we've got the next generation of hydropower – ocean, tidal, wave and conduit energy coming on," says Linda Church Ciocci, executive director of the National Hydropower Association, a Washington trade group.

Even those focused on environmental damage from dams worry about lost funding. "We'd like to see federal funding continue for new research on hydrokinetic systems and damless hydro," says Robbin Marks, director of the hydropower reform campaign at American Rivers, a Washington environmental group. "We're interested in understanding more about the environmental impact of those systems."

Power from tidal flows, waves, and irrigation canals are expanding the definition of hydropower – none of which are likely to get DOE research funding if the hydropower budget gets whacked, some observers say.

Others remain skeptical. "I find myself agreeing with the DOE argument that hydropower is a mature technology," says Jerry Taylor, the Cato Institute's director of Natural Resource Studies. "If there's economic merit to this area, then venture capitalists will put their money into it."

But that kind of waiting game would be a shame, says Trey Taylor, cofounder and president of Verdant Power in Arlington, Va. Two weeks ago his company received venture capital funding for its program. Next month, Verdant will deploy its first two underwater turbines in New York City's East River, the first step in an experimental technology that attempts to harness the tidal currents to create power.

But more firms would be competing to get into tidal power today – if the government shouldered more of the environmental research costs, Mr. Taylor says.

The current high cost of researching areas such as a technology's environmental impact makes it likely that a company will fail. He and his partners remortgaged their homes and begged friends for funds.

"I can understand the tight situation DOE is in," he says. "But what they're not seeing is that a whole new breed of technology has come on right now. The push for sustainable power is sweeping the globe."