Obama’s Wish List for Energy

Source: MATTHEW L. WALD • New York Times  • Posted: Wednesday, February 15, 2012

Steven Chu

Associated PressSteven Chu, the energy secretary.

The Energy Department’s budget request for the fiscal year that begins on Oct. 1 sounds a familiar theme. “The United States is competing in a global race for the clean energy jobs of the future,’’ a cover letter from the federal energy secretary, Steven Chu, says.

“Do we want the clean energy technologies of tomorrow to be invented in America by American innovators, made by American workers and sold around the world?” he writes. “Or do we want to concede those jobs to our competitors?”

Yet the $27.2 billion budget request itself is mostly about nuclear energy. It calls for $7.6 billion for a “safe, secure” stockpile of weapons, $2.5 billion for nonproliferation efforts and $5.7 billion for the continuing struggle to clean up the environmental effects of weapons manufacturing dating back to the Manhattan Project and the cold war.

There was some restraint on the weapons end: a factory for processing plutonium components for nuclear warheads at Los Alamos in New Mexico, which was supposed to cost $4 billion to $6 billion over the next few years, was indefinitely deferred

A department official said the weapons program had to set priorities, and that what it needed to do most was to update its storage and handling of highly enriched uranium, another weapons fuel.

“The country had options on the plutonium side — we didn’t have options on the uranium side, ‘’ said Thomas P. D’Agostino, the undersecretary for nuclear weapons.

Among other changes, the Obama administration is seeking to eliminate $4 billion in subsidies to fossil fuels, aid that Dr. Chu calls unnecessary; it is also proposing to drop research on onshore wind because it is “an established technology,’’ the energy secretary said. Offshore wind will still get research help.

Nuclear power would get less money, but there would be $60 million for “used fuel disposition,’’ meaning the storage of nuclear waste, as called for recently by a blue ribbon commission on the waste issue appointed by the president.

The budget would provide $65 million for advancing small modular reactors, which can be built in factories and shipped around the world to where they are needed. That is slightly less than small modular reactors got last year.

One of the biggest proposed increases was for the department’s office of Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy, which would get $2.34 billion, up from $1.81 billion, a 29.1 percent jump. Within that category, the development and deployment of biomass and biorefinery research, and advanced manufacturing, got the biggest increases.

The administration is once again trying to cut the fuel cell budget; last year, Congress added to it. Building technologies and weatherization would also get big increases.

Lowell W. Ungar, director of policy at the Alliance to Save Energy, said he was heartened by the big increase proposed for energy efficiency. “We can hope that the Congress takes this energy efficiency budget in total and enacts it, but that’s perhaps unlikely,’’ he said, with notable understatement. Big increases were proposed last year, too, and Congress did not agree.

But the budget is a starting point, Mr. Ungar said, and “it perhaps protects the program from cuts.”

Some of the changes are much smaller. For example, the Department of Energy wants to let small companies take an option on patents that it holds. That would allow a company to have exclusive rights to the patent for a short period while working out details and shopping for capital to put the technology into production. Actually using the patent would require serious negotiations, but the companies could take an option on up to three patents for $1,000.

More mundane cost-saving steps are proposed as well. The department’s printers and photocopying machines are now set for two-sided printing. And for the most part, the department has stopped buying airline tickets that are fully refundable — most of the department’s travel is predictable, and non-refundable tickets are cheaper, Dr. Chu said.