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United States

Research funding boost not enough -- Stimulus goes to existing projects

New federal funds for wind power research and development are not as substantive as they might seem. Three support packages were rolled out last month offering a combined $126.5 million, but the sum is only a one-time burst of money from Barack Obama's economic stimulus bill and will largely go to support projects that are already underway, or to fund the infrastructure associated with existing programs.

The wind industry had been hoping for a large and long-time increase in annual budget funding for the National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL) and other Department of Energy (DOE) research labs. What it got was $93 million for a variety of research and development (R&D) and infrastructure projects, $25 million for a rotor blade testing facility in Massachusetts and $8.5 million spread over 53 smaller projects aimed at improving the market acceptance and deployment of wind power throughout the US. The $25 million for rotor blade testing represents first construction funding for a long planned blade test facility, initially announced in June 2007.

Of the R&D allocation, $45 million is earmarked for purchase of a new test bed to support an existing drive train analysis and reliability program being operated by NREL and the DOE (Windpower Monthly, May 2008). NREL wind program manager Brian Smith says there is uncertainty on how and where the funds will be awarded. "It's not clear to us exactly for what period of time and what are the requirements in order to spend that money. But it's definitely intended to be a one-time nature," says Smith.

DOE's stated goal for the new test bed, or dynamometer, will be for a test facility that creates loads up to 15 MW, which could test the very largest drive trains like offshore specific wind turbines, says Smith. It will not necessarily be located at NREL's currently drive train facility in Colorado, but will bid competitively for any number of federal facilities in the US. The same approach will be applied for the $24 million allocated for co-operative research between universities and the private sector. More details are expected to follow in June.

Hope remains in the wind industry that the annual US wind budget -- which on average has been $40 million each year for over a decade -- will see major increases. Annual DOE spending on wind was increased from $49 million in 2008 to $55 million for 2009. The latest budget proposal from President Barack Obama calls for raising it to $75 million, but that requires congressional approval and is still much lower than the wind industry says is necessary for wind to make major improvements on cost and efficiency.

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