The administration claims, at least, to be interested in two goals:
- Reducing U.S. dependence on oil.
- Addressing the threat of climate change.
No. 1 rules out imported fossil fuels; No 2 rules out coal. What’s that leave? Renewable energy.
Congressional earmarks that redirected Energy Department financing last year slowed or even shelved many research projects, including ones to develop bigger and more efficient wind turbines, to make hydrogen power out of a mix of algae and water, and to plant matter.
Its scientists are also doing ground-breaking work on finding environmentally benign ways of generating electricity to produce hydrogen from water to power cars; they are working on new materials and designs to make devices powered by solar cells cheaper; and they are developing enzymes and more efficient machinery to convert switchgrass and corn stalks into biofuels to reduce oil consumption.
But it is hardly the kind of crash program that government labs have conducted in the past to build an atomic bomb or go to the moon. Rather, the lab gingerly hands over slices of its yearly budget of $200 million to a smorgasbord of programs in solar, wind, plant matter, geothermal, hydrogen and fuel cells, efficient buildings, advanced vehicles and fuels and electric infrastructure.
"Our budget is nothing compared to the price of a B2 bomber or an aircraft carrier," Rob Farrington, manager of the lab’s advanced vehicle systems group, said.