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Tuesday, February 21, 2006

Bush Discusses Energy Plans - Outlines Proposals to Help Wean U.S. Off Oil Addiction

Yahoo News reports that President Bush delivered another address on Monday discussing his energy plans. Saying the nation is on the verge of technological breakthroughs that would "startle" most Americans, President Bush used a two-day trip to energy-related locations to outline his energy proposals to help wean the country off foreign oil.

On Monday, the President paid a visit to a solar manufacturer, United Solar Ovonic (see picture), in Auburn Hills Michigan and the battery center of Milwaukee-based auto-parts supplier Johnson Controls Inc. Bush plans to round out his trip by visiting the Department of Energy's National Renewable Energy Laboratory in Golden, Colorado on Tuesday.

Echoing his remarks on energy during the State of the Union address (see previous post), the President pointed out that less than half the crude oil used by U.S. refineries is produced in the United States, while 60 percent comes from foreign nations. Some of these foreign suppliers have "unstable" governments that have fundamental differences with America, he said.

The article continues:

Bush is focusing on energy at a time when Americans are paying high power bills to heat their homes this winter and have only recently seen a decrease in gasoline prices.

One of Bush's proposals would expand research into smaller, longer-lasting batteries for electric-gas hybrid cars, including plug-ins. He highlighted that initiative with a visit Monday to the battery center at Milwaukee-based auto-parts supplier Johnson Controls Inc.

During his trip, Bush is also focusing on a proposal to increase investment in development of clean electric power sources, and proposals to speed the development of biofuels such as "cellulosic" ethanol made from wood chips or sawgrass.

Energy conservation groups and environmentalists say they're pleased that the president, a former oil man in Texas, is stressing alternative sources of energy, but they contend his proposals don't go far enough. They say the administration must consider greater fuel-efficiency standards for cars, and some economists believe it's best to increase the gas tax to force consumers to change their driving habits.

During his visit to Johnson Controls' new hybrid battery laboratory, Bush checked out two Ford Escapes — one with a nickel-metal-hybrid battery, the kind that powers most hybrid-electric vehicles, and one with a lithium-ion battery, which Johnson Controls believes are the wave of the future. The lithium-ion battery was about half the size of the older-model battery. In 2004, Johnson Controls received a government contract to develop the lithium-ion batteries.

On Tuesday, Bush plans to visit the Energy Department's National Renewable Energy Laboratory in Golden, Colo., to talk about speeding the development of biofuels.

The lab, with a looming $28 million budget shortfall, had announced it was cutting its staff by 32 people, including eight researchers. But in advance of Bush's visit, Energy Secretary Samuel Bodman over the weekend directed the transfer of $5 million to the private contractor that runs the lab, so the jobs can be saved.

The department "has been informed that the NREL lab director will use these funds to immediately restore all of the jobs that were cut earlier this month due to budget shortfalls," the department said in a statement Monday.

"Our nation is on the threshold of new energy technology that I think will startle the American people," Bush said. "We're on the edge of some amazing breakthroughs — breakthroughs all aimed at enhancing our national security and our economic security and the quality of life of the folks who live here in the United States."

Later Monday, Bush visited the United Solar Ovonic plant, which makes solar panels, in Auburn Hills, Mich., outside Detroit. "This technology right here is going to help us change the way we live in our homes," Bush told reporters.

Bush said he was impressed with the growing commercial uses of solar energy.

"Roof makers will one day be able to make a solar roof that protects you from the elements and at the same time, powers your house," Bush said. "The vision is this — that technology will become so efficient that you'll become a little power generator in your home, and if you don't use the energy you generate you'll be able to feed it back into the electricity grid."

Rep. Ed Markey, D-Mass., questioned Bush's energy policies Monday, saying the administration also supports subsidies for luxury SUVs.

"This single tax subsidy dwarfs anything being done for hybrid batteries," Markey said in a news release.

As a complement to Bush's travels, six Cabinet officials are crisscrossing the nation this week, appearing at more than two dozen energy events in more than a dozen states.

This article presents a pretty balanced review of the President's new energy proposals. As I pointed out in my analysis of Bush's State of the Union remarks on energy, while these new energy initiatives are certainly a step in the right direction, they are hardly bold, nor do they completely forgive lack of leadership on this issue in the past or the administration's continued hypocracies - as Rep Markley points out, how can we take the President seriously when he says he wants to lead the country away from our oil addiction while he continues to subsidies the purchase of SUVs or while he says nothing about raising fuel efficiency standards or implementing a gas tax, probably the two most effective measures that could be taken to promote conservation and efficiency and wheen our nation off of oil?

I'm glad the article focuses on the funding issues for the National Renewable Energy Lab as well. It's great to see NREL get its funding back, but it is also important to remember that $28 million of Bush's Advanced Energy Initiative (AEI) budget requests go to simply reinstating the previous budget cuts to the NREL. Incidentally, that $28 million is almost as much as the total budget devoted to advanced battery research ($30 million), and dwarfs the increase in funds to that research due to the AEI ($5 million).

This also points out how little Bush's initiative is really doing to promote plug-in hybrids, despite all the talk - the talk certainly doesn't hurt, but in the end, a $5 million increase to advanced battery research is chump change compared to other budget items including research spent on the still-far-off hydrogen economy - Bush called for a $53 million increase in funding for hydrogen research, ten times what he has devoted to batteries. Let's not even start comparing AEI spending to the cost of the Iraq War...

Finally, Bush used his latest national radio address last friday to discuss the nuclear component of his energy proposals. Heiko has coverage of the address here

[Another hat tip to Jenny]


Heiko said...

From the above link I gather that the tax break is long standing and meant to be for small businesses (farmers, builders) who need large vehicles for their work,

but that both Republicans and Democrats now think that the tax break is being abused and are working on abolishing it.
(I don't understand whyever the tax break was introduced in the first place, if you want to support small business, why not just lower their taxes?)

You mention gas taxes and CAFE. I agree with the former, but it seems to be electoral suicide in the US, and I think the President deserves some credit for resisting pressure to lower prices. There were after all plenty of proposals by individual states to lower gasoline taxes to compensate for higher prices.

As for CAFE, you just recently mentioned the problem that manufacturers only have to meet an average (each hybrid, or rarely driven small car, allows them to sell a fuel hog). CAFE needs some serious reform, and the administration's proposals I think go in the right direction (as I understand it, they want to introduce weight classes, so that small cars or large SUV's have to meet a standard as a separate group).

You'll have noticed that I commented on hydrogen on my blog. I used to share your opinion that it's all far off and not worth the attention it's getting.

I've somewhat modified my opinion. I still think that hydrogen fuel cells for cars are a long way off, but fuel cells, electric motors for cars, the need for storing high pressure gases on board cars (in particular natural gas) or for producing hydrogen efficiently,

all these are near or at least medium term.

Hydrogen is already required to produce fertiliser, and, I believe, it's also used for removing sulphur from petrol and diesel. And ultra low sulphur fuel is required to allow particle filters for diesel cars, and these again are required to reduce particulate emissions from diesel cars, which happen to be substantially more efficient than petrol cars.

Efficient hydrogen manufacture is an important research area, I think, in its own right, even entirely forgetting about a possible hydrogen fuel cell powered car future.

I know that the battery research grants sound small. I'd say two things here, one there needs to be something useful to do with the research funds for researchers (apart from financing lots of flights to attend fancy dinners in far flung locations to "network" with other researchers). I am not sure in how far lack of funding is actually preventing useful research from being done on advanced batteries.

And that's also because of the second point I'd like to make on batteries. These are enormously ubiquitous devices. Every mobile phone or laptop has one (in fact, so does every car). There's huge interest in making them lighter, making them cheaper and making them last longer.

So, there are already companies with combined turnover in the trillions keen on developing better batteries.

And then the question arises, what research should the state finance and what's better left to the private sector?

Some people would argue that it's precisely the fact that hydrogen fuel cell powered cars are a long way off that government funding is required, while the likes of Toyota are much better placed to develop hybrids than the US government and support should then be for the product rather than government sponsored research (and it's true that Toyota's done a much better job of getting hybrids to market than the ill fated PNGV
a billion Dollars got spent without producing a vehicle people actually wanted to buy - hmm engineer poet thought the PNGV was a great idea and it was just the fact that it was cancelled by the Republican majority that it failed, I disagree with him, Toyota simply did a much better job at getting a good product out).

Jesse Jenkins said...

Green Car Congress has some excerpts from his address at the Johnson Controls research center.