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Web Extra Friday, February 3, 2006

Bush addresses alternative energy

The topic of alternative energy cropped up in President Bush's State of the Union Address Tuesday, tucked between talk of U.S. heathcare reform and American economic competitiveness. In the address, Bush rolled out his new Advanced Energy Initiative, which he said will help in the development of new technologies so that the United States can "move beyond a petroleum-based economy."

"America is addicted to oil," Bush said. To reduce that dependence, the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) will see a 22 percent increase in funding for the fiscal year 2007 budget, which will be released Monday. That money will act to speed research into energy technologies — everything from cleaner and safer coal and nuclear power, to more efficient wind and solar energy technology, to alternative power for automobiles, according to the initiative outlined in a Jan. 31 White House press release.

The announcement of the energy initiative "surprised me," says Michael Ladisch, a professor of agricultural and biological engineering at Purdue University in Lafayette, Ind. But it was "a nice surprise," he says, because the speech seemed "positive," and Bush "clearly indicated" steps toward advancements in renewable fuels.

One of the goals, Bush said in his speech, is for such technologies to replace 75 percent of the oil now imported from the Middle East by 2025. That number, however, is only a small portion of the total oil imported into the United States. Last November, most oil imported to the United States was from Canada, followed by Mexico, according to Energy Information Administration statistics. Saudi Arabia came in third, accounting for only 12 percent of the total U.S. oil imports for that same month.

"I am pleased that Bush finally recognizes that we have a serious oil problem," says David Pimentel, an ecology and agricultural sciences professor at Cornell University in Ithaca, N.Y. (see Geotimes, August 2005). He is less optimistic, however, that the 75-percent cut in oil imports from the Middle East in about 20 years is reasonable.

Other scientists, however, think that timeframe is feasible. The current high price of oil acts as a "driver" toward alternative fuels, Ladisch says. And if oil prices stay high, it "won't be long" before automobile fuel derived from plant waste, or "cellulosic ethanol," is made cost-competitive (see Geotimes, February 2006). For some U.S. locations close to the source of plant waste, the technology is already cost-competitive, he says.

The outline of the new energy initiative cites scientists who think that acceleration of research into the alternative technology could make cellulosic ethanol a cost-competitive fuel for automobiles within six years. That timeline "makes sense scientifically," says George Douglas, a spokesperson for DOE's National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL) in Golden, Colo. But the timing will only work if funding actually goes toward the necessary research, he says.

Under the initiative, DOE's increase in funding will go to research into clean-energy technologies, but exactly where that money will go remains to be seen. In past years, portions of funding have been directly appropriated to specific projects by members of Congress in "earmarks," taking funding away from broader national projects. No matter what, however, more money "will be helpful" and will increase the rate at which research is moved along, Douglas says.

Those advancements will help Americans meet the need to "change how we power our automobiles," Bush said in his address. Companies such as Ford plan to increase production of hybrid vehicles by a factor of 10 over the next decade, according to a Feb. 1 ABC News story. And General Motors made public their first hybrid vehicles at the recent Detroit auto show, according to the story. Other automobile technologies not yet on the market — but expected to receive research funding — include hydrogen-powered fuel cell and plug-in hybrid technologies.

In addition to cars, homes and businesses also need to change how they use energy, Bush said. Currently, solar energy panels are about 10 to 20 percent efficient at converting sunlight into energy, Pimentel wrote in the August Geotimes story. But the new Solar America Initiative funds research into semiconductor materials, which would give solar panels a higher efficiency.

Research into a variety of alternative energies has been ongoing for the last 10 years, Ladisch says. The next step, he says, is for DOE and NREL to look into each technology further and increase the pace of research.

Kathryn Hansen

"Flying high on plant waste," Geotimes, February 2006
"Weighing in on renewable energy efficiency," Geotimes, August 2005
ABC News story
The New York Times coverage of renewable energy
Energy Information Administration statistics
The Advanced Energy Initiative
State of the Union Address

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