OAK RIDGE, Tenn. - U.S. Sen. Lamar Alexander wants the federal government to double what it spends on energy research and development, pumping another $9 billion a year into finding better and cheaper ways to use solar, nuclear and other forms of what the Tennessee Republican said would be clean and cheap energy sources.
Alexander, the ranking Republican on the Senate Committee on the Environment and Public Works, said Wednesday that America needs to spend more on developing new energy sources and technologies through research, not through mandates or prolonged subsidies.
"It's hard to think of an important technological advance that has not involved at least some government-sponsored research, especially in the area of energy," Alexander told several hundred business and government leaders gathered here for the two-day Tennessee Valley Corridor Summit.
In spite of the growing federal deficit, Alexander and other Tennessee Republican members of Congress said the more than $3 billion spent each year on energy, military and environmental programs in Oak Ridge is vital to U.S. defense and energy independence.
"What we are doing here is important for our country, important for our world and we are going to continue to lead in Oak Ridge," said U.S. Rep. Chuck Fleischmann, the Chattanooga Republican who is hosting the Corridor summit.
Fleischmann noted that the $6.5 billion Uranium Reprocessing Facility recently approved for Oak Ridge will be the largest construction project in Tennessee history and a small modular reactor project planned in Oak Ridge by the Tennessee Valley Authority in partnership with Babcock & Wilcox will be the first such plant of its kind in the world. Such projects follow the completion here of the $1.2 billion Spallation Neutron Source facility -- the largest science project in America when it was completed in 2007.
Despite such multibillion-dollar projects in Oak Ridge, total U.S. spending on nondefense research and development on energy-related technologies -- nearly $9 billion in fiscal year 2011 -- is lower as a percentage of gross domestic product than what France, Japan, Korea or China spend, Alexander said.
"The most appropriate role for government is in research," he said. "I believe a second role is limited jump-starting of new technologies."
Fleischmann and U.S. Sen. Bob Corker, R-Tenn., who also spoke here Wednesday, were more cautious about endorsing a doubling of federal energy research spending. But both Fleischmann and Corker urged a higher priority be made in the federal budget on energy research that fosters economic growth and energy independence.
"The fiscal crisis we're facing is crowding out the kind of funding we may very well need in many areas for research and development and infrastructure investments for the future," Corker said. "Much of the spending that makes our country stronger gets pushed aside because of a lack of willingness to deal with the mandatory [entitlement] spending programs."
Both Corker and Alexander have visited Germany in the past few months, and each was critical of the Germans' decision to abandon nuclear power and to raise energy prices.
"Germany is closing its nuclear power plants and becoming more dependent upon natural gas, but buying both forms of energy from other countries rather than producing it on its own," Alexander said. "What I found in Germany, in short, was an energy policy mess that discourages job growth."
Alexander criticized proposals for nationwide renewable portfolio standards and repeated his opposition to continued federal subsidies for wind power, which he said has already received $16 billion in subsidies since 2009. Congress just granted another year of production tax credits for wind energy that is projected to cost the treasury another $12 billion.
"People talk about Big Oil, but the big, unnecessary subsidy is Big Wind, and a much better place to spend our money would be energy research," Alexander said.
Alexander's speech recalled his appeal here five years ago for another Manhattan Project-like effort to promote nuclear power. At the time, Alexander said the U.S. should build 100 more nuclear reactors in the next 20 years. Since then, only four new reactors have been started in the United States, and TVA has moved to finish a second reactor at its Watts Bar plant.
"We're still going to need 100 more reactors because we're going to have to replace the nuclear units we have today at some point, and energy demand is going to continue to grow," Alexander said "Nuclear is still the safest, most reliable source of clean energy for the future at an affordable price."
Contact Dave Flessner at email@example.com or at 423-757-6340.