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Research and Renewables: Funding at the National Energy Labs

Fortnightly Magazine - August 1996

to 50 percent. These days, according to industry partners, government is looking for even more financial backing from private industry.

And as the belt-tightening continues and renewable projects get squeezed, utilities or other businesses are unlikely to fill the research gap.

"With the price of fossil fuel so low, it's really hard to stimulate private investment, [which] looks at the much shorter term," says Prabhu, SCE's technology transfer manager. "So (em personally now, not speaking for my company (em I see this gap as delaying the agenda for implementation of renewables."

Pabhu's view is shared, somewhat, by those at DOE. Charles B. Curtis, deputy secretary, and Joseph J. Romm, acting principal deputy assistant secretary for energy efficiency and renewable energy, co-wrote an article for the April Atlantic Monthly that addressed renewables. Quoting Royal Dutch/Shell Group, the authors noted that advances have "persuaded Shell planners that renewables may make up a third of the supply of new electricity within three decades, even if electricity from fossil fuels continues to decline in cost."

Technological developments from biomass and photovoltaic (PV) fuel cells have substantially reduced the costs of renewable power, the authors write, but government budget cuts are taking their toll on research. The corporate sector has not picked up the slack, due to its own downsizing as well as shifts toward process and product improvement instead of applied research. Meanwhile, other countries with higher electricity costs show a greater incentive to develop renewables. Countries like Japan and Germany own several major American PV companies, accounting for 63 percent of the PVs made in the United States.

Nevertheless, while Curtis and Romm champion renewables, the pool of dollars is drying up.

Both Charles F. Gay, NREL lab director, and Anthony C. Schaffhauser, ORNL director of energy efficiency and renewable energy programs, say they're still adjusting to budgetary changes, and that in many ways the staffing cuts have forced them to do their jobs better. They also point out, as do some of their corporate partners, that it's too soon to measure the real effects of the cuts, since current funding covers part of the fiscal future.

Gay's budget fell from $237 million in 1995 to $167 million this year, a figure equal to 1993's budget dole. Staffing has dropped from 1,000 to about 670 (projected), a level not seen since 1992. Gay says program cuts in wind power, PVs, biomass, and alternative fuels have simply stretched out the timetables for lab goals. The bulk of the remaining dollars are being directed into wind, solar, and biomass technologies.

However, an inability to predict funding makes for delicate relationships with NREL's 175 partners. "It makes it difficult for us to be a predictable and consistent performer when we lose the continuity of our program efforts," Gay says. "So in the case of industry with photovoltaics, we end up appearing flaky, because we initiate an effort with an industrial partner only to pull the rug out within a six- to 10-month kind of timeframe. It severely damages the credibility we've worked hard to establish over time."