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US Funding Aims to Boost Renewable Energy

The United States plans to spend $600 million in coming years to propel development of renewable fuels and other new energy solutions. The funding goes along with millions that private investors are spending to find ways to cut the nation's dependence on oil. VOA's Brian Wagner recently met with business and research leaders striving to find the best new energy solutions.

The future of alternative energy appears to be rich, whether it is the potential of new biofuels, citrus peel or farm waste products to supply new energy sources.

At a recent conference in Florida, green entrepreneurs met with researchers and farmers to plot the industry's future. Scores of research firms are developing conversion methods to process a variety of raw materials into ethanol. Farmers are finding ways to turn long overlooked products, like livestock manure and non-food crops, into fuel supplies.

Agriculture Secretary Ed Schafer told delegates that green energy is creating great new opportunities for the U.S. economy, especially in the farming sector.

"There is no turning back from a future in which more of our energy resources are grown and harvested in a sensible way," he said. "That means agriculture is going to be right in the middle of the game."

Schafer said, under a newly approved farm bill, officials plan to spend $600 million over the next five years to develop and implement new energy technologies, including biofuel crops. That comes in addition to $35 million already being spent.

Green entrepreneurs say federal support is crucial to propel development of advanced technologies that are needed for new energy solutions. Federal loans also are an important tool to give nascent projects the chance to develop into successful businesses.

Some business leaders say government spending still is not enough to offset oil expenditures in the United States, which consumes about 20 million barrels of oil each day. Agriculture Secretary Schafer faced some tough questions from green business leaders at the recent conference.

"Investing 30 million, 50 million even 100 million seems very small in comparison with the opportunities and the size of the problem," said one attendee.

Schafer said he agrees that more money should be spent, and that is why officials are trying to encourage more private investment.

"It is not just a government effort, it is private sector, too," he says. "But we are not spending enough money. We are just saying let that oil come in from overseas and we are not doing enough about it."

In Florida, officials are trying to capitalize on the boom in green technology. Governor Charlie Crist has sought to expand energy research programs at state universities and ordered energy companies to begin offering more electricity from renewable sources. He says his goal is to draw green businesses to the state.

"I believe that Florida can be the green technology hub of America, and clearly the equivalent of the Silicon Valley of green," he says. "Florida can be known as energy and green industry leaders throughout the world."

Alan Hodges, an agricultural economist at the University of Florida, has been following the renewable energy field for more than 20 years. He says federal and state initiatives have created a unique climate for growth now.

"There is tremendous interest right now," he says. "I don't think there has ever been more interest than there is now, and it is all because of high oil prices."

Government and private sector interest in new energy has come and gone before.

Joseph Weissman of Aurora Biofuels has been researching the potential of growing algae as a potential source of fuel oil since the oil crisis of the late 1970s. As certain algae grow, they produce oils that can be harvested and converted into fuel. He said government funds helped advance his work until gasoline prices dropped a few years later, and public funding disappeared.

He says the involvement of more private money will help ensure the development of new energy technologies into the future.

"That was lacking in the past, it was all government money," Weissman says. "Plus government money isn't driven by the same forces. When someone [private investor] has invested money in something they will see it through one way or another. The government may change its mind overnight."

Researchers say it is difficult to determine whether algae or another technology is the most promising for the future, and when the general public can expect to see the benefits. But they agree that energy costs will continue to remain high, driving further interest in new energy sources in the future.