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Where Bush would steer energy R&D

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Others cite studies that indicate benefits to government involvement. A 2004 National Research Council (NRC) study calculated a historically good return on several categories of energy technology investment. Energy efficiency, for instance, showed a $30 billion return on investment of $7 billion – or $4 for every $1 invested in it since 1978, according to the report.

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Innovations flowing from federal research include compact fluorescent light bulbs and refrigerators that use only one-third the electricity of earlier models. These and other gains have helped slash America's "energy intensity," the amount of energy spending per dollar of economic output, economists say.

Funding for energy-efficiency technology at DOE has seen a "substantial decline" during the Bush years, says Ms. Gallagher. Even renewable-energy funding has been only about flat, after inflation is considered, she says. She and others question whether funding for nuclear technology is robbing efficiency and renewable research budgets – and even funds for "clean" coal.

'Clean' coal's future

The ability to capture carbon dioxide (the major gas tied to global warming) from future coal-fired power plants and store it underground is critical to the future of using massive US coal reserves. If research doesn't reveal how CO2 can be held underground, then those reserves are at risk, experts say.

Even so, funding for "carbon sequestration" research is up a modest 7 percent since last year to $79 million. That's dwarfed by a $395 million budget request for nuclear-fuel reprocessing – a 400 percent jump from 2006. The request for nuclear-fusion research is up 34 percent from this year, to $428 million.

"There's no way fusion is going to be commercial even in decades – and we should not be robbing Peter to pay Paul," says Carol Werner of the Environmental and Energy Study Institute in Washington. "We should be deploying technology that can delivered now and over the next 15 years. Fusion is not one of those."

Still, she's glad to see clean-coal research getting more funding. DOE plans to build an almost-emissions-free "FutureGen" plant, a $1 billion coal-fired power plant, in Texas or Illinois by 2012. It would capture carbon dioxide – a precursor to storing the gas underground.

FutureGen would get $109 million, double last year's request. Likewise, funding for biomass research, which includes ethanol made from switchgrass and crops other than corn, would double since 2006, and solar funding would rise 80 percent. It's good, but it's not enough, say experts.

Federal R&D funding is vital for pilot projects for noncorn-based ethanol and carbon sequestration, in particular, says Robert Nordhaus, an expert on energy technology research at Van Ness Feldman, a Washington law firm. "We're ... betting on carbon sequestration for keeping coal going without really moving quickly ahead on the sequestration project," he says.

A major problem has been that priorities and funding levels change continually, "which makes it difficult to have a coherent technology program," Mr. Nordhaus says.

A report last week by the Electric Power Research Institute, the industry's research arm, cited the urgency of energy research to addressing global warming. CO2 emissions from the coal-burning US electric-utility sector could be cut to 1990 levels within 25 years, the report said. But that can happen only with "accelerated investment in electric technology R&D and aggressive deployment of the resulting technologies," the EPRI report states.