Where Bush would steer energy R&D
If new technology is a key answer to global warming and America's addiction to oil, then President Bush's proposal to boost federal spending on energy R&D – by no less than 30 percent in fiscal 2008 – would seem a welcome step.Skip to next paragraph
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In the new $2.7 billion budget plan, R&D dollars allotted to the US Department of Energy (DOE) continue a transition toward research that will help cut greenhouse gases.
But overall federal spending on energy research in real dollars is only one-third what it was at its 1978 peak, according to a Harvard University analysis. Some also question the administration's emphasis on nuclear research, saying other promising technologies could be applied sooner to climate and energy-security issues.
"The new DOE budget doesn't reflect the big increase in public concern about greenhouse gases," says energy expert Richard Newell, formerly a senior economist on the President's Council of Economic Advisers, now at Duke University in North Carolina.
Because the federal government remains the largest investor in energy R&D, its spending priorities are of keen interest to scientists, environmentalists, energy entrepreneurs, utilities, and the general public – especially as concerns rise about both climate change and energy security. As might be expected, the new budget proposal has a host of critics. Among the concerns:
•Next year's budget request would boost funding for biofuel, clean-coal, battery, and solar technologies. But it eliminates research for hydropower and geo-thermal, two renewable energy sources.
•Spending on energy-efficiency programs, which in the past led to low-power refrigerators and energy-saving compact fluorescent bulbs, would drop.
•There would be a fourfold increase from 2006 in spending for nuclear-fuel reprocessing, a practice that many experts say does little to replace oil and remains years from commercialization.
Taken together, the budget request breaks little new ground in terms of fighting global warming or the nation's reliance on foreign oil, many experts say.
"There simply is no new sense of urgency in this energy R&D budget," says Kelly Gallagher, director of the Energy Technology Innovation Project at Harvard University. "Growth for solar, biofuels, and clean-coal research is positive. But overall funding is not nearly equal to the challenge."
Resources devoted to climate change and energy security "are largely anemic," says Jason Grumet, executive director of the National Commission on Energy Policy, a group of energy experts that recommends doubling federal energy-research funding.
Energy Department officials disagree.
"This year's budget request supports the president's energy initiative to accelerate the deployment of renewable energy technology, such as biomass, hydrogen, and solar energy," says Megan Barnett, a DOE spokeswoman. The budget "builds on our commitment to strengthen global energy security by making investment to diversify our energy resources, expand our nation's scientific know-how, and continue to invest in energy that can reduce our carbon footprint," she says.
The overall decline in federal research dollars since the late 1970s is troubling to many, but not to everyone. Some argue that government is best left out of the energy research business because it's no good at picking winning technologies. The nation has received little in return for its massive investment in energy-technology research since 1978, these analysts say.
"If the utility industry wants clean coal, they can figure out themselves how to have cleaner coal," says Myron Ebell of the Competitive Enterprise Institute, a Washington think tank. "We don't think government-sponsored technology has a very good track record. Markets work better."