ENERGY POLICY:

House Science panel to focus on nuclear, hydrokinetic, efficiency R&D measures

In his final year as chairman of the House Science and Technology Committee, Rep. Bart Gordon (D-Tenn.) has bold plans to increase research and development programs at the Energy Department, with specific plans to focus on nuclear, marine and hydrokinetic, and energy efficiency programs.

Gordon plans to introduce legislation that would authorize a nuclear energy research and development program at DOE that would focus on enrichment, reprocessing, generation and storage of spent fuel.

"I think that there needs to be additional research in terms of reprocessing, enrichment, generation and storage," Gordon said today. "I think there needs to be additional research there with the funds that follow it."

The committee will hold hearings to explore the level of nuclear energy research currently ongoing at DOE, including funding authorization levels, Gordon said. From there, the committee will draft legislation to authorize a broad nuclear research and development program.

The Obama administration has similarly called for a broad, science-based nuclear energy research program, reversing some Bush-era nuclear priorities, such as ending part of a program that sought to accelerate research and development on the reprocessing of spent nuclear fuel in reactors (E&ENews PM, June 26, 2009).

The legislation that could come out of the Science Committee would be comprehensive, a committee aide said, covering many aspects of nuclear energy research, including small reactors and "Generation IV" reactors.

Hydrokinetic and efficiency goals

The Science panel also has plans to introduce legislation that would authorize DOE to expand research efforts to harness energy from the waves of oceans and currents of rivers, Gordon said.

While Gordon and his aides would not give specific funding authorization amounts or a timeline for introduction of a bill, an aide said the measure would likely be introduced soon.

Such legislation would provide specific directives to help get demonstration projects in the water, to develop a test facility and to establish a system for environmental monitoring. Those issues were key criteria mentioned by industry leaders at a subcommittee hearing on the topic last month (E&E Daily, Dec. 4, 2009).

The handful of energy extraction technologies designed to capture the motion of waves; currents of tides, oceans and rivers; and thermal gradients in equatorial waters could contribute significantly to the nation's energy portfolio, industry leaders said during the December hearing. But the industry remains small, with fewer than half a dozen small commercial projects installed worldwide. Only one of those is located in the United States.

Rep. Brian Baird (D-Wash.), chairman of the Energy and Environment Subcommittee, convened the hearing last month and is likely involved in efforts to introduce legislation. Last week, Baird, who is also retiring at the end of 2010, said he plans to put a focus on oceans in his subcommittee this year.

Energy efficiency is another R&D area on which Gordon will focus legislative efforts this year. Legislation that includes funding authorization for DOE energy efficiency research could focus on the tools needed to enable net-zero-energy buildings and how to better integrate efficient appliances and technologies, an aide said.

That legislation is not as far along as the hydrokinetic measure, the aide said. But Gordon said the measure would be a priority to introduce this year.

Other efforts

Gordon said the committee will also explore the topic of rare earth minerals and their relationship to new energy technologies, although no specific legislation is currently being planned.

Clean energy technologies -- such as solar photovoltaics, geothermal, efficient lighting, wind turbines and batteries for electric vehicles -- depend on globally scarce materials like cadmium, gallium and germanium. And many of the mines for those materials are in politically unstable areas around the globe.

"Much of the rare earth minerals, which are very important to energy efforts ... are in China, and the Chinese are purportedly looking to get more of a monopoly going outside their borders and getting mines elsewhere, so we think it's important to look into that," Gordon said. "We want to look into whether there is a problem, and if so, whether or not we might authorize some research into areas, particularly alternatives to rare earth minerals or ways that those minerals -- particularly here in our country -- can be both discovered as well as mined and processed more efficiently."

Reporter Katherine Ling contributed.