A Lack of Energy
A Bush visit doesn't change the fact that spending on alternative fuels is down
He laments that the lag time from lab to market has stretched significantly since the 1950s, when researchers at the venerable Bell Laboratories took only two years to develop the first silicon solar cell. Although Bush noted that two thirds of U.S. research and development is done by the private sector, that is decidedly not the case with alternative energy today.
"There is very little of what I'd call robust corporate R&D in this business,"says NREL Director Dan Arvizu. The capital costs are too great and the risks are too high, especially when any company investing knows it will be fighting to earn a return head to head against Big Oil. "To a large degree, the national labs are very much the equivalent of that corporate R&D in these somewhat nascent industries,"says Arvizu. "Our mission is to develop the technology options, to reduce the risk, so that the private sector and, to a large degree, the investment community can mobilize capital."
To that end, NREL has partnered with both fledgling entrepreneurial companies and big corporate players. The lab is in the midst of a four-year, $38 million biomass project with chemical giant DuPont and other companies. Their goal is to develop a biotechnology package for producing ethanol out of cornstalks, now waste plowed back into the field after harvest. "There was a time when we'd do an entire project like this ourselves, but we have moved away from that model," says Bill Frey, global business director for bio-based materials at DuPont. "We do what we do best, and where there are people with world-class capabilities, let's work with them in partnership."
Cooked corn. Biomass researchers like DuPont can take advantage of the one-of-a-kind ethanol refinery at NREL, which allows detailed testing at each step of the process. "It's really a glorified brewery," says process engineer Andy Aden, who opens a jar of fermented cornstalks, already giving off the sweet smell of success--the sugar produced as the mash is converted into alcohol fuel. Other work with corporate partners Genencor and Novozyme brought down the cost of one part of the process from between $3 and $5 to 25 cents a gallon. But Frey notes that there are still major technical challenges. What can the government do to help? "Funding, funding, funding," he says. "Would it move faster if we spent more? The answer is yes."
But NREL spent recent weeks cutting back its research ambitions for the year, because Congress not only kept renewable energy funding flat but chomped into the allocation further with a record $170 million in congressionally directed projects that send money to home districts. These "earmarks" consumed more than 50 percent of the federal dollars for biomass research, 33 percent for wind energy, and 27 percent for hydrogen, an American Association for the Advancement of Science analysis shows. The $2.5 million devoted to a hydrogen bus system in Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid's home state of Nevada (even though hydrogen buses are not yet available commercially), for example, takes away from money that would have been spent on competitively bid, peer-reviewed projects to bring hydrogen transport closer to reality.
Bush has vowed to reverse the trend by increasing renewable energy funding 22 percent in his proposed budget, to $771 million. Still, that amounts to less than 1 percent of the $55 billion the federal government spends annually on research, nearly half of which is devoted to healthcare. "Yet healthcare disappears the second the electricity goes out," says one NREL scientist.