"Rural Renaissance" Conference Promotes Biofuels, Solar, Wind


St. Louis played host this past week to the US Departments of Energy and Agriculture's "Advancing Renewable Energy: An American Rural Renaissance" conference. While we weren't able to make it to the events last Wednesday and Thursday, we kept a close eye on news coming out of the conference, including an announcement of $34.5 million in grants for "new research in biofuels, solar energy and biomass genomics research to accelerate development of alternative fuels," and a speech by President Bush in which he again claimed that "We're too dependent on oil."

Much encouraging news came out of the conference, but as today's St. Louis Post-Dispatch points out in an editorial, so far the US federal government has been long on talk promoting renewables and other alternative sources of energy, but short on funding to support further commercial development of these technologies. The P-D's editors note, for instance, that while the feds have stepped up funding for research on renewables, fossil fuels still receive much larger subsidies:

The Bush administration has committed millions of dollars to researching new energy sources, including $250 million to solve technical problems that now make it prohibitively expensive to mass produce ethanol from switch grass and plant waste. But that amount is paltry compared to the billions it has bestowed in tax breaks on oil companies to encourage more drilling, more consistent supply and lower prices. If we're going to get serious about breaking our oil addiction, we're going to have to stop subsidizing the industry that's keeping us hooked.
The editorial also points to the President's push for more oil and gas drilling in the Gulf of Mexico, his highlighting of E85 ethanol-gasoline blends, and his vision of solar roofs on American houses. The editors note that substantive conservation measures could offset the need for more drilling (conservation was mentioned once, in passing, in Bush's speech), that it's easier to put gasoline into flex-fuel vehicles than E85, and that the state of California is doing more to promote solar roofs than the federal government. One might also notice that Bush is still referring to nuclear power as renewable (not a false claim necessarily, but a highly problematic one), and observed that subsidies for research into hydrogen fuel-cell cars, a technology still far from commercial viability, are much larger ($1.2 billion) than those for hybrids, biofuels and other renewables.

The point here isn't to bash the feds -- the conference itself was an encouraging sign that, at some levels, the national government is recognizing the potential of alternative and renewable energy sources for powering the American economy. Given the steps being taken by state and local governments, as well as by the private sector, we're still a bit underwhelmed by the talk coming from Washington. We can hope, though, that our national leaders will continue to watch developments in these areas, and see the benefits for American economic growth, national security, and environmental restoration. ::St. Louis Post-Dispatch