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Research and Renewables: Funding at the National Energy Labs
Shrinking budgets force staff cuts, but some projects
find friends in high places.
"They're putting the best face on the inevitable."
Funding for renewable energy for government/ industry research partnerships took another beating early this summer (em and that's on top of a $113-million cut suffered this fiscal year. Next year promises to be no different, as scientists, bureaucrats, and their industry partners await the next round of deliberations in Congress by subcommittees on the Interior, and Energy and Water.
"What they're really aiming for," predicts a national lab official, "is a phasing out of all energy efficiency and renewable energy work."
Meanwhile, the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) faces its own future in the DOE Abolishment Act (H.R. 1993). Various proposals circulate. The worst would gut
the department. Then there's H.R. 3415, which would temporarily repeal the 4.3-cent-per-gallon gasoline tax and make up some
of the lost revenues with a $14-million slash in DOE administrative expenses.
Any of these cuts could filter down to renewable and energy-efficiency programs, forcing the question: Are the salad days over for the National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL), Oak Ridge National Laboratory (ORNL), and Sandia National Laboratory (em the agencies that perform the lion's share of this research work. Will these agencies see the end of their industry partnerships? Will the United States lose its lead in renewable technologies?
Ironically, as legislators wrangled over the budget in Washington, DC, one of the largest-ever industry/government renewable energy projects was dedicated in the Mojave Desert. Solar Two, a 10-acre "magnifying glass," concentrates sunlight into a 300-foot tower that heats molten salt to 1,050°F to produce 10 megawatts (Mw) of electricity for up to three hours after sunset.
"We're storing sunlight, for the first time in history," says Edan Prabhu of Southern California Edison (SCE), a leader in the Solar Two consortium of 10 companies.
The $48.8-million project received half its funding through NREL, which directs most renewable energy projects for DOE. "We've been fortunate because the funding has held together," says Prabhu.
But for how long?
Discussions with lab officials, industry executives, and a pro-renewables congressman suggest that the government will maintain funding only for long-term, high-risk research (em such as projects involving hydrogen or superconductivity (em or research that can be commercialized fairly quickly. If so, Solar Two could represent a high-water mark for government renewables funding.
At the end of its two-year test run, Solar Two is unlikely to advance any farther than its predecessor, Solar One, although its promoters say affordable,
commercial plants could someday generate 200 Mw of power.
Even Rep. Dan Schaefer (R-CO), the "white knight" of renewable energy and head of the 82-member House Renewable Energy Caucus, maintains that projects must, at some point, prove commercially profitable.
"I don't think probably right now that solar is. Well, I know it isn't. It's just being developed quite rapidly, but it's still not there for commercial use," he says.
National energy labs used to provide 80 percent of funding (em compared with 20 percent for private industry (em but that share has now dipped