A Lack of Energy
A Bush visit doesn't change the fact that spending on alternative fuels is down
GOLDEN, COLO.--Even in the roller-coaster world of cutting-edge energy research, it was a speedy reversal of fortune. Thirty-two staffers at the National Renewable Energy Laboratory, laid off two weeks earlier because of budget cuts, got their jobs back last week--just in time for a visit by President Bush touting a new drive to break the nation of its oil habit.
Despite the hoopla of the president's whirlwind tour, and his promises of more federal dollars in the future, the nation's premier center for research into wind, solar, and ethanol energy labors under a shrunken budget at a time when consumers are facing record-high prices for fossil fuels. Regardless of the last-minute move that allowed NREL to hire back its fired workers, the center's funding is down 11 percent from last year, and Bush's proposed budget would not even restore the lab to 2005 levels.
Administration officials maintain that the numbers don't tell the whole story and Bush's plan would actually devote more dollars to research next year--particularly in key areas. But the federal government's long-wavering commitment to alternative energy was something even the president was forced to acknowledge at the lab nestled in the Rocky Mountain foothills just west of Denver. "I recognize that there has been some interesting, let me say, mixed signals, when it comes to funding," he told the scientists. "My message to those who work here is ... we appreciate what you're doing. And we expect you to keep doing it, and we want to help you keep doing it."
Taking a cut. With already high gasoline prices spiking upward with every global political disturbance or weather front, Americans might be grateful for progress on alternatives to the fuel that now dominates transportation. And with electricity and heating prices high because of increasing dependence on natural gas, consumers would welcome a greater contribution from wind and solar energy, which provide less than 1 percent of the electricity the United States consumes. But Washington cheerleading aside, the federal renewable energy program remains relatively small and has been nibbled down further by budget cuts and spending diverted to congressional pet projects.
Larry Kazmerski, the ebullient director of NREL's National Center for Photovoltaics, who has been at the lab since its inception in the 1970s, is hopeful. "We are so optimistic and so happy" to see Bush's proposed $148 million budget for solar energy next year, he says. It would be a 78.5 percent hike, the program's biggest single-year jump. However, there is much ground to regain, since solar funding in every year of the Bush administration has fallen short of President Clinton's last budget. Adjusted for inflation, Bush's new proposal still amounts to less than half the funds spent on solar when a cardigan-wearing President Carter was waging the "moral equivalent of war" on fossil energy.
"The big thing about this technology is, it works," says Kazmerski, whose boosterism is evident in the sun-decorated ties and scarves he hands out. Yet solar has been too expensive to make inroads in the United States. NREL scientists work on bringing down the cost by using solar concentration techniques and by whittling down the amount of semiconductor material needed into thin film. NREL's film is now used in military backpack generators. And the highly efficient triple-junction concentrator solar cells developed at NREL are used in almost all satellites, such as those that beam TV signals across the globe. But Kazmerski says commercialization has been set back years by inconsistent support. "Give it a chance,"he says. "This is our chance to take back leadership in this industry."