Lawmakers chop up renewable-energy fund

  As the demand for renewable energy becomes palpable across the West, lawmakers have taken a bold step: They’ve slashed the U.S. Department of Energy’s budget for renewable energy programs and directed funding toward such projects in their own districts.

In mid-November, Congress cut about $160 million from the Energy Department’s Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy program, reducing it by 35 percent from 2005.

As a result, the National Renewable Energy Laboratory in Golden, Colo., will suffer about a 12 percent cut to its $200 million annual budget. The lab’s director, who oversees more than 900 scientists working on research projects ranging from solar and wind technology to alternative fuels and energy efficiency, is faced with laying off as many as 100 employees within the next few weeks.

Much of the money that might have gone to the lab is instead being siphoned toward "directed" projects selected by individual lawmakers. For instance, Sen. Harry Reid, D-Nev., earmarked more than $39 million for energy projects in his state, including $18.9 million to the University of Nevada-Las Vegas for projects like hydrogen fuel cell and biofuel development.

Such "piecemealing" will inevitably slow efforts to develop renewable energy sources and improve energy efficiency, says lab spokesman George Douglas. Rather than ensuring stable funding for long-term national projects, lawmakers are instead "more narrowly focused on their congressional constituencies," he says. "Congressionally directed spending does harm toward the greater goal more often than it does any good."