Alternative Future

The Energy Department is under increasing pressure to develop clean and renewable fuel sources.

There's nothing like a spike in oil prices to send investment in alternative fuels soaring. A year and a half ago, the National Renewable Energy Laboratory in Golden, Colo., was facing budget cuts and preparing to lay off dozens of employees. Now, amid widespread concerns about the economic implications of rising fuel costs and the security implications of the country's dependence on foreign oil (to say nothing of the political implications of both), the national lab devoted to developing renewable fuels to power buildings and vehicles is undergoing a renaissance.

Thanks to congressional action, spending on biofuels and other alternative fuels is soaring along with prices at the pump. While the 2008 budget was being negotiated at press time, all indications are that Congress will continue to substantially increase Energy's investment in renewable energy research and development, which includes the lab's budget. For NREL, which is operated by the nonprofit Midwest Research Institute in Kansas City, Mo., that largesse is funding new facilities, partnerships with industry and staffing increases of about 10 percent. In mid-July, the 1,000-person lab had 97 new job openings posted.

More than 30,000 scientists and engineers work at 21 Energy-sponsored labs and technology centers. Historically, much of the labs' work has been devoted to nuclear weapons research, and nuclear and fossil-fuel energy production. But concerns about global warming and the nation's dependence on petroleum, as well as growing worries about nuclear proliferation, are driving changes in Energy's priorities.

The nation's ambivalence about nuclear weapons is nowhere better reflected than in the competing House and Senate versions of the 2008 budget. The Senate would boost Energy's nuclear weapons budget by 3.3 percent, while the House would cut it by 9.4 percent. While deep spending cuts appear unlikely in the near term, pressure on Energy's nuclear weapons programs surely will continue to grow.

Although the nuclear weapons mission isn't going away soon, winds of change are stirring-literally. In June, Energy Secretary Samuel W. Bodman announced the department would invest in two new wind-turbine research facilities in Texas and Massachusetts. Texas General Land Office Commissioner Jerry Patterson said in a statement, "This is the birth of a new industry here in Texas." Hyperbole, perhaps, but the Energy Department is investing more in renewable fuels and technologies aimed at reducing greenhouse gases in electricity production-such as carbon sequestration at coal-fired power plants.

That trend is likely to continue. Also in June, Energy established three new bio-energy research centers in an effort to develop the scientific breakthroughs needed to advance President Bush's goal of making cellulosic ethanol an economically viable alternative to gasoline by 2012. The centers will be in Oak Ridge, Tenn.; Madison, Wis.; and Berkeley, Calif. Supporting the centers will be consortiums involving the Oak Ridge National Laboratory (operated jointly by the University of Tennessee and Battelle); the Pacific Northwest National Laboratory in Richland, Wash. (operated by Battelle); the Lawrence Berkeley and Lawrence Livermore national laboratories (operated by the University of California); and Sandia National Laboratories (operated by Sandia Corp., a Lockheed Martin company).

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