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Research and Renewables: Funding at the National Energy Labs

Fortnightly Magazine - August 1996

labs regroup, their futures hang upon further developments in Washington.

"Dan Schaefer has done a marvelous job of organizing the Renewable Energy Caucus," Schaffhauser says. "One of the difficulties for our programs is that he's primarily focused on photovoltaics and wind, and not on the rest of the utility system."

Important research is needed on how such renewable systems would be integrated into the grid, he notes. And on reducing production costs. What Congress forgets, according to Eric Hirst, an NREL corporate fellow, is the need for research into critical national problems, such as increasing dependence on imported petroleum and changes in the electric industry.

"I defy you to find some core within the Department of Energy where they're actually seriously studying these issues," Hirst says. He claims that no one is researching mergers and acquisitions, or how the transmission system will work under competition, or how reliability will be balanced against efficiency. As head of Electric Industry Policy Studies, Hirst faces his own troubles. Last year's

budget: $1.4 million; this year's: $200,000.

"One of the difficulties in shrinking budgets is that they're trying to increase the funding for nuclear weapons work, increase funding for environmental cleanup, and the pie is getting smaller," Schaffhauser says. "And the particular piece for renewable energy is sort of sucking wind."

But Rep. Schaefer reminds observers that House members, on an amendment he co-sponsored, earmarked $45 million for renewables in fiscal 1996 (em despite Republican objections. Nevertheless, the overall appropriation still fell from the previous year.

"I guess we'll have to wait, see, and find out," says Schaefer of this year's appropriations. "But if we get a communication out to all of our caucus members to start lobbying their friends, then we can build up enough support to forestall any big whacks."

Whatever happens, industry is already making adjustments. SCE, for instance, won't seek continued government funding for its "Our Solar Neighborhood" program, which uses PVs to supply overloaded systems at the tail ends of the electric grid. That $5-million venture was half-funded by NREL and was set to expand. "We're not planning to go forward as a result of the cuts," says Prabhu.

He estimates his company has received about $30 million from DOE over the past five years, which SCE has matched.

"Government should be taking the long-range risks for research," he says. t

Joseph F. Schuler, Jr. is associate editor of Public Utilities Fortnightly. E-mail:


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