Study Sees Green in U.S. Energy Research


The federal government's efforts to advance fossil fuel and energy-efficient technologies have yielded significant economic, environmental and national security benefits, according to a National Academy of Sciences study released Tuesday.

The academy, a private organization that advises government on scientific and technical issues, examined 39 research and development programs funded by the U.S. Energy Department since 1978. Of those, 17 focused on energy efficiency and 22 on fossil fuel technology.

The study determined that the programs yielded economic returns of $40 billion from a total government investment of $13 billion.

The report could increase pressure on the Bush administration to maintain funding of government-backed research and development. The administration's fiscal 2002 budget called for reductions of about 6% in funding for R&D; programs involving energy conservation and efficiency. But the White House subsequently directed Energy Secretary Spencer Abraham to review R&D; efforts and recommend appropriate funding.

Nearly three-quarters of the financial benefits cited by the academy came from three programs that cost only $11 million in government investment. Those programs led to more efficient refrigerator and freezer compressors, fluorescent light ballasts and heat-resistant, "low emission" window glass. Government standards and regulations ensured that the advances were adopted nationwide.

Without government research funding, these and other technologies might not have been developed, the academy said.

"Government energy R&D; has had sort of a bad rap," said Richard Campbell, the study director. "A lot of people think that if it was anything worthwhile, industry would undertake the research. But there is a role for government funding R&D; in this area. The big areas where both programs have excelled were in areas where industry would not want to invest money."

The academic experts and industry representatives on the panel said that they hope the study will send a strong message to the Bush administration.

"The investment in energy efficiency does pay off for the government and in reduced energy costs for the consumer," said panel member Maxine L. Savitz, a general manager of Torrance-based Honeywell International. "One would hope that they would not reduce the budget."

Although much of the economic gain came from energy efficiency projects, some of the fossil fuel projects also produced significant environmental benefits, the academy said. Two technologies developed by the fossil fuel program decreased smog-producing nitrogen oxides in the atmosphere by more than 26 million tons and acid rain-producing sulfur dioxide by 2 million tons.

Some programs have not lived up to expectations, including fuel cells for home and industry use, the panel acknowledged.

The academy cited national security benefits from programs that led to advances in oil production and seismic technologies. Those programs, it said, have increased petroleum reserves and production, reducing dependence on imported oil.

The report mentioned several technologies that have the potential to produce large economic or environmental benefits. They include the Partnership for a New Generation of Vehicles, which is intended to produce cleaner, more efficient cars, and a power plant technology known as integrated gasification combined cycle, which would produce electricity from coal without generating as much pollution as conventional coal-fired plants.

The report urged the Energy Department to maintain an active and broad portfolio of research and development projects with a wide range of objectives, including economic, environmental and national security goals. It also suggested the department set up performance targets and milestones so that unsuccessful projects can be canceled before too much money is wasted.

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