WASHINGTON – Researchers and companies working to prevent future power blackouts are seeing their federal funding slip away to lawmakers' home-district projects, including research on ceramic engines and burning recycled carpets as fuel.
Bush administration officials confirm they are being forced to cut or reroute federal money from superconductor technology research to make way for the pet projects that Congress approved in an energy spending bill last fall.
The research, which is aimed at increasing the capacity of electrical transmission lines fivefold - tenfold eventually - gained new urgency last summer after a huge blackout darkened much of the Northeastern United States.
The technology is attractive because it would allow more electricity to reach customers, especially during high-demand summer months, without having to build new, aboveground transmission lines.
Researchers expressed alarm at the timing of the cuts.
"It has taken us 15 years to build this up," said Dr. Dean Peterson, leader of the Superconductivity Technology Center at the Los Alamos National Laboratory in New Mexico. "If you start cutting back, outstanding people will be demoralized and look for other jobs. That would be catastrophic."
Added Robert Hawsey, who directs superconductivity research at the national laboratory in Oak Ridge, Tenn.: "If the government ramps down, you can miss the boat and may well be buying this stuff from Japan, China, South Korea and Germany."
The culprits, according to those involved, are previously rejected pet projects that were included in last fall's $27.3 billion energy and water appropriations bill by congressional negotiators.
The projects were specifically attached to the 2004 budget for a new Energy Department office that finances research to upgrade the nation's blackout-prone electricity grid, meaning the money must be spent by that agency even though many of the projects don't involve the grid.
The congressional negotiators recommended $47.8 million for research into high-temperature, superconducting cables and generation equipment.
But the Energy Department's Office of Electricity Transmission and Distribution said it will only be able to spend $32 million because it is stuck with $26 million in congressional projects it doesn't want.
Some of the congressionally mandated programs - known as earmarks - baffled the director of the new transmission office, James Glotfelty.
Asked to explain the objective of the $300,000 Georgia Institute of Technology project on the use of recycled carpet as fuel for kilns, Glotfelty responded, "I don't know." More importantly, he said it had no connection to his office.
Among the other congressional projects:
-$2 million for the PowerGrid simulator at Drexel University in Philadelphia and the New Jersey Institute of Technology in Newark. The project finished last in a competitive review by experts, Glotfelty said.
-$1 million for a joint research program between Wright State University in Dayton, Ohio, and the University of Albany in New York, in collaboration with Wright Patterson Air Force Base, to enhance the performance of second-generation, high temperature coated superconductors. This project lost a competition for funding previously, according to Glotfelty.
- $300,000 for research on advanced ceramic engines and materials for energy applications. The project has no connection to the electrical transmission office, the director said.
-$4 million to continue research on aluminum matrix composite conductors, far more than the office planned to spend on that technology, Glotfelty added.
The superconductivity research received $40.7 million in 2003, including grants to companies that matched half of the amount.
Despite the budget crunch lawmakers helped create, some are unhappy that the administration hasn't found a way to fully fund the superconductivity research.
"This is almost a silver bullet, given how difficult it is to locate new transmission lines, while the demand for electricity is increasing," said Sen. Charles Schumer, D-N.Y., who has companies in his state interested in producing the high capacity system.
Schumer said he would join with other lawmakers to find the money.
Dr. Balu Balachandran, who directs a superconducting program at the Argonne National Laboratory near Chicago, said his lab was within three years of launching demonstration projects with the newest technology.
"It's a terrible thing to happen," he said of the cutbacks.