February 27, 2006

Research Institute At Mercy Of Budget

By: by Inside Bay Area


IT WAS 1973 and the United States was facing a crippling energy crisis brought on by the Araboilembargo. Solutions couldn't come fast enough.

The U.S. government gathered emergency funds to create the country's first federal program aimed at encouraging the development of alternative energy technology.

Workers endured gas prices four times higher than normal by learning to car pool and by using mass transit.

And then corporate America did something really impressive. All sectors of the energy industry voluntarily pooled their funds to create one of the first industrywide collaborative research centers in the world - the Electric Power Research Institute. It was designed to develop and test new technology for electric power generation and then share the information with its members.

Palo Alto-based EPRI immediately began working on everything from electric vehicles to making nuclear plants safer. It also co-sponsored some of the first studies on the health effects of pollution.

Government and private industry charted an aggressive path toward energy sources that never run out. Plenty of money flowed in as EPRI earned a place among the most advanced energy research centers in the world.

But when the energy crisis abated and gas prices came back down, the sense of urgency subsided. Little by little, EPRI's funding began to dwindle as companies felt less pressure from consumers to develop new energy sources.

EPRI's funding decreased from $301 million in 2002 to $272 million in 2004, during which time its headcount dropped from 850 to 743, according to its 2004 annual report. Several of the institute's buildings are shuttered at its sprawling campus tucked into the pristine Palo Alto hillsides.

"Ten years ago, EPRI was the premier private R&D product management organization, but because of some elements of deregulation - basically that utility companies are supposed to deliver power and not generate it - EPRI has gone through some real budget challenges," said Pradeep Haldar, director of the Energy and Environmental Technology Applications Center at the State University of New York-Albany.

Today, EPRI is still committed to solving some of the country's most pressing challenges. Already it has advanced technology to reduce U.S. dependence on oil, burn coal without hurting the environment and improve the transmission of electricity on the utility grid.

The organization recently announced it has completed a project with DaimlerChrysler AG to design an electric-powered van that plugs into any home wall socket and has a driving range of more than 20 miles - enough to satisfy the daily needs of an estimated 40 percent of U.S. drivers.

"The plug-in broadens the fuel mix to the nation's entire portfolio of electricity generation option: You can drive your car on coal, hydro, nuclear, wind and biomass - energy resources that are plentiful," EPRI President Steven Specker wrote in an editorial in a recent edition of the EPRI Journal.

EPRI provides a wide range of services to more than 700 energy-related organizations in 40 countries. Its membership generates 90 percent of the electricity consumed in the United States.

"(EPRI's) scientific and technical achievements have returned benefits to utilities and their consumers conservatively estimated at over $50 billion - nearly 10 times the collective utility investment in EPRI," according to the institute's Web site.

As the U.S. faces another looming energy crisis, EPRI might once again see a return to its glory days.

"It's always a positive sign when legislation has been introduced in a bipartisan manner to increase the emphasis on science," said Barbara Tyran, director of EPRI's Washington, D.C., operations. "There definitely is a renewed interest on Capitol Hill for energy R&D going forward in a world of global competitiveness."