Emerging US renewables grab presidential attention

Posted: 22 February 2006

President George W. Bush says he is "fired up" about renewable energy. On a visit to the Energy Department's National Renewable Energy Laboratory on Tuesday Bush mentioned but downplayed his government's push to build nuclear power plants and turned his attention to clean coal, ethanol, hybrid cars, wind and solar power.

"We're close to changing the way we live in an incredibly positive way," the President said in remarks to an energy conservation and efficiency panel.

To achieve the "national goal of becoming less dependent on foreign sources of oil," Bush said "we're not relying upon one aspect of renewable energy to help this country become less dependent. We're talking about a variety of fronts."

President George W. Bush addresses a gathering at the National Renewable Energy Laboratory. Photo: Eric Draper/The White House
President George W. Bush addresses a gathering at the National Renewable Energy Laboratory. Photo: Eric Draper/The White House
President George W. Bush addresses a gathering at the National Renewable Energy Laboratory.© Eric Draper/The White House
Bush said he would like to make the research and development tax credit a permanent part of the tax code instead of continuing to require annual reauthorization, a move that would benefit renewable energy development.

Energy demand

The high price of natural gas and the pressure of demand on the resource is of concern to him, the President said.

"Natural gas is important for manufacturing, it's important for fertilizers," he said. "But to use it for electricity is causing enormous pressure, because we're not getting enough natural gas produced."

Repeating his call for more liquified natural gas terminals to import gas from overseas, Bush said that to reduce the pressure on natural gas resources the country needs to "better use coal, nuclear power, solar and wind energy."

Bush said the American taxpayers should understand that research dollars spent now will yield direct benefits for them in the future, such as construction of the first zero emission coal-fired electricity plant by 2015.

"It's important that we spend money on new technologies so we can burn coal cleanly, because we've got 250 years worth of coal reserves," the President said. "The American taxpayers have got to know that by spending money on this vital research, that we're going to be able to use our abundant sources of coal in an environmentally friendly way, and help with your electricity bills," he said.

Research cuts

Funding became an issue at the National Renewable Energy Lab (NREL) earlier this month when the lab reduced its staff by 32 people to help meet a $28 million budget shortfall. Of the 32, eight were research staff and 24 worked in support positions. Research programs affected by the layoffs include biomass, hydrogen and basic research.

NREL researcher Maria Ghirardi works on a way to use green algae to produce hydrogen . Photo: Warren Gretz/NREL
NREL researcher Maria Ghirardi works on a way to use green algae to produce hydrogen . Photo: Warren Gretz/NREL
NREL researcher Maria Ghirardi works on a novel way to use green algae to produce hydrogen directly from water and sunlight. Hydrogen, when recombined with oxygen in a fuel cell, produces clean energy without pollutants.© Warren Gretz/NREL
Just in time for the President's visit, Energy Secretary Samuel Bodman transferred $5 million to Midwest Research Institute, the operating contractor for NREL. These funds will be used to immediately restore all of the jobs that were cut.

"The programs at NREL are critically important to realizing the President's vision to diversify and strengthen our nation's energy mix," Bodman said. The work of these employees "will bring us great innovation in renewable energy technologies," he said.

Bodman said the Energy Department transferred the $5 million from other accounts. The department is working with Congress to restore funds to those accounts by taking it from "congressionally directed projects in 2001 and 2002 that have failed to make progress," he said.

President Bush's Fiscal Year 2007 budget request seeks a 78 per cent increase in solar energy research, a 65 per cent increase in biomass research, and a 42 per cent increase in hydrogen research - all core areas of research work done at NREL.

Long-term solutionb

At NREL on Tuesday, the President spoke little about hydrogen fuel cells, saying only that, "It's not a short-term solution, or an intermediate-term solution, but it's definitely a long-term solution. It will help us achieve grand objectives, less dependence on oil, and the production of automobiles that have zero emissions that could harm our air."

Bush expressed interest in the development of batteries that will enable an automobile to drive the first 40 miles on electricity alone - plug-in hybrid vehicles.

"This is coming," he said, "I mean, we're close to this. It's going to require more research dollars. The budget I submitted to the Congress does have money in it for this type of research for new types of batteries. But I want the people to know we're close." Ethanol fuel has the power to shift the whole equation about energy production "dramatically," Bush said. Most ethanol in use today is made from corn and soy, but Bush praised NREL researchers for developing ways to produce ethanol from other plants and plant waste.

"One of the interesting things happening in this laboratory and around the country," he said, "is what's called the development of cellulostic ethanol. That's a fancy word for using switchgrass, corn, wood products - stuff that you generally allow to decompose - to become a source of energy."

Minnesota Governor Tim Pawlenty is excited about ethanol too. As Chair of the Governor's Ethanol Coalition, he told the 10th Annual National Ethanol Conference on February 9 that his job is "to get all 50 states in the nation to E-10 as soon as possible." E-10 is a mixture of 10 per cent ethanol and 90 per cent gasoline.

Minnesota was the first and is still the only state in the nation to require 10 per cent ethanol content in its gasoline. Pawlenty has proposed that Minnesota go to E-20 by 2012.

Wind power eventually could generate up to one-fifth of all electricity needed in the United States, Bush told the NREL panel, citing his technical advisers. "They say to me that there's about six per cent of the country that's perfectly suited for wind energy, and that if the technology is developed further, that it's possible we could generate up to 20 per cent of our electricity needs through wind and turbine," he said.

Wind capacity

The global wind energy sector experienced another record year in 2005, according to figures released Friday by the Global Wind Energy Council. Nearly a quarter of new wind generating capacity was installed in North America, where the total capacity increased by 37 per cent in 2005, gaining momentum in both the US and Canada.

Wind farm at sunset, Palm Springs, California. Photo: Warren Gretz/NREL
Wind farm at sunset, Palm Springs, California. Photo: Warren Gretz/NREL
Wind farm at sunset, Palm Springs, California© Warren Gretz/NREL
The US wind energy industry broke earlier annual records of installed capacity with the installation of nearly 2,500 MW, which makes it the country with the most new wind power.

The American Wind Energy Association (AWEA) said this record installation of new wind power is due to the current three year window of stability in the federal incentive for wind energy, the production tax credit.

"Thanks to the Congress's extending the wind energy production credit before it expired for the first time in the credit's history, the wind industry is looking forward to several recordbreaking years in a row," said AWEA's Executive Director Randall Swisher. In previous years, he said, the wind energy construction cycle was unstable, depending on whether the production tax credit had been renewed in time to create investor confidence.

Solar power has a bright future for residential use, Bush told the NREL panel. "The vision for solar is one day each home becomes a little power unit unto itself, that photovoltaic processes will enable you to become a little power generator, and that if you generate more power than you use, you can feed it back into the grid."

Solar Energy Industries Association President Rhone Resch said the President's leadership has resulted in the first solar tax credits for homeowners in two decades which took effect January 1st.

"The President's Solar America Initiative, unveiled February 1st, proposes the largest funding increase for solar energy research in US history," Resch said. "By 2015, this initiative aims to make solar power cost-competitive with conventional energy."

Resch said the national solar trade association he heads will work to extend the solar tax credits through 2015 and "ensure that the US is the global leader in the next great high tech growth industry, solar energy."

"The US faces significant challenges from other countries, such as China, Japan, and Germany, in the race to lead the next great high-tech industry, clean energy." Resch said.

"High natural gas prices are a wake-up call for this country to innovate," said Resch, "and the President has said it's time for the US to develop clean technology solutions that increase our energy independence."

President Bush told the NREL panel that dependence on foreign sources of oil is like a hidden tax on the American people.

"I have spent a lot of time worrying about the national security implications of being addicted to oil, particularly from parts of the world where people may not agree with our policy or our way of life, and the economic security implications of being hooked on oil, particularly since the demand for oil is rising faster than the supply of oil," Bush said. "And any time that happens it creates the conditions for what could be price disruption and price spikes at home are like hidden taxes on the working people of our country."

Copyright Environment News Service (ENS) 2006. All Rights Reserved.

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