United States

United States

Bush budget touts major nuclear plan -- Lawmakers divert funds from broad research to pet projects

Wind power falls far short of the gains made by other technologies exploiting local sources of energy in President George Bush's proposed budget for fiscal year 2007. Bush's proposal for wind, out of a $2.77 trillion budget plan, totals $43.8 million, a $5 million increase over the $38.8 million Congress approved for wind energy research and development (R&D) this year. But the 2007 request is also slightly less than the amount Bush originally asked for in his fiscal year 2006 budget.

Nonetheless, in the President's annual State of the Union speech, delivered days before the release of the budget, Bush declared that the US is addicted to oil and proposed an "advanced energy initiative" to help break America's dependence on foreign sources of energy. In addition to developing new transportation fuels, Bush said, Americans must change the way they power their homes and offices. "We will invest more in zero-emission coal-fired plants, revolutionary solar and wind technologies, and clean, safe nuclear energy."

In broad terms, says the American Wind Energy Association's Randy Swisher, the message is encouraging. "As far as I can remember that is the first time that the president of the United States has ever explicitly used the wind word in the State of the Union. I don't want to gloss over the importance of that," he says.

nuclear context

But it is also important to put the budget numbers for wind in context, Swisher says. "It is going in the right direction, but it isn't a hugely significant strategic initiative on the part of the Department of Energy (DOE), and it doesn't compare with the nuclear initiative that this administration is pushing, for example."

Bush's budget request calls for a $250 million Global Nuclear Energy Partnership to expand the use of nuclear power, $31.4 million to improve the efficiency of advanced nuclear systems, and $54 million for Nuclear Power 2010, a program designed to pave the way for industry to order new, advanced light-water reactors by the end of this decade.

The plan also includes $148 million to help accelerate the market competitiveness of solar photovoltaic systems, an increase of nearly 79% over 2006 funding, and proposes investing $54 million in developing a clean coal demonstration project and another $330 million in additional coal research. Proposed biomass research spending has increased 65% to $150 million, much of it targeted at increasing the use of biofuels in transportation. The budget also proposes a 26% hike in hydrogen and fuel cell research spending to $196 million. At the same time, the budget ends funding for geothermal and hydropower research, as well as oil and gas exploration.

Much of Bush's focus, says Swisher, is on technologies with longer time horizons to become commercially competitive. "The fact that wind is growing in the market a lot today does have an impact at the DOE in terms of where R&D dollars need to be invested," he says. "But it is also a reflection of the fact that this industry has been much more engaged on Capitol Hill pushing extension of the PTC than we have been engaged at the DOE talking about our strategic vision," says Swisher, referring to wind energy's federal production tax credit (PTC).

With the PTC now in place until the end of 2007, AWEA plans to spend more time talking with the government about the industry's priorities. "One of the things that is clear is that we view the DOE wind program as having very wide-ranging impact and value for the industry that goes beyond technology development," says Swisher, pointing, for example, to the research role the department can play in wind integration and wildlife issues. Industry representatives began meeting with DOE officials in February and one of the goals of that process is to attach a price tag to what needs to be done. But "there is no question" it will be more than the $43.8 million Bush has proposed, says Swisher.

DOLLARS DIVERSION

With debate just beginning on next year's funding, researchers at the National Renewable Energy Lab (NREL) are struggling to cope with an unexpected budget shortfall for this year. When Congress at long last approved the Department of Energy's 2006 budget in December, nearly three months after the start of the fiscal year, the final bill diverted a big chunk of research dollars away from ongoing programs to local projects.

Of wind's nearly $39 million budget, lawmakers carved out $13 million to fund 17 projects that are not part of NREL's ongoing research into low wind speed turbine technology and offshore development. Funding for other technologies also suffered from so-called "earmarks."

"The earmarks are generally some project in their home district that brings federal dollars to their home district. They have considerable incentive to do that, especially in an election year, which 2006 is," says NREL's George Douglas.Overall, NREL received $28 million less in 2006 than the year before. After making substantial cuts in operating expenses and outside contracts, the lab was forced to layoff 32 of 938 employees. Although none of the layoffs were in the wind research program, "the reality is some of the work that the DOE has been doing is being cut back," says Swisher.

Both Douglas and Swisher agree the diversion of budget dollars is a problem that is getting bigger every year. "I view the earmark process as one that has gotten totally out of hand and one that has become very detrimental to the public interest," says Swisher.

Two bills currently before the Senate aim to limit the ability of individual lawmakers to earmark funds for specific projects. "We'll see what happens," says Douglas.

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