Congress Approves Energy Bill (HR 6) Promoting Efficient, Renewable Energy on Campuses

Chronicle of Higher Education By JEFFREY BRAINARD Wednesday, December 19, 2007

Congress gave final approval on Tuesday to a bill authorizing up to $750-million annually in federal assistance for renewable-energy and energy-efficiency projects on college campuses. President Bush is expected to sign the measure, which also promises new spending for academic research on renewable energy.

College officials may not see any money for a while, though.

The assistance for campus projects, which would be the first of its kind from the federal government, is not authorized to begin until the 2009 fiscal year. The bill provides no dollars for any new research programs, and those were not explicitly included when lawmakers unveiled this week a separate, stripped-down, appropriations bill to finance most federal programs in 2008.

Nevertheless, the energy (HR 6) establishes spending priorities that may influence future years' appropriations.

The provisions affecting colleges are part of a larger, sprawling bill to reduce dependence on imported oil and find environmentally friendly sources of energy. A key provision mandates a 40-percent increase in the government's fuel-efficiency standards for all motor vehicles, from the current average of 25 miles per gallon to 35 miles a gallon—the first rise in three decades.

Less-Wealthy Colleges Favored for Grants

For energy projects, the measure authorizes the Department of energy to make $250-million in grants and $500-million in loans annually to colleges, public schools, or local governments. The bill establishes grants of up to $1-million each for energy-efficiency improvements to facilities and of up to $500,000 each for projects that test new techniques in energy efficiency and sustainable energy production.
At least 50 percent of the total grant money must be awarded to institutions of higher education- and the bill’s language specifically favors colleges with modest financial resources. The grant dollars awarded to academe must be evenly split between colleges with endowments between $50-million and $100-million and others whose endowments do not exceed $50-million.

Sen. Jeff Bingaman, Democrat of New Mexico, was a lead sponsor of the language on endowments.

The measure also authorizes grants of up to $250,000 to plan and design the projects.

The money, if provided, would be "absolutely critical," given the need, said Anthony D. Cortese, president of Second Nature, a nonprofit organization that supports sustainability in higher education. His group estimates that colleges face at least $16-billion in costs just to retrofit campus buildings to make them more energy efficient.

Research on Biofuels Included

For research, the bill authorizes:

  • $25-million a year for grants to colleges, or consortia including a college, for research and development on biofuel production "in states with low rates of ethanol production."
  • $25-million for grants of up to $2-million each to universities for research on renewable energy.
  • $50-million a year for grants to projects involving engineering colleges to study harnessing energy from ocean waves and tides.
  • More than $184-million annually for industrial research centers based at colleges.

Congress may be hard-pressed to finance new energy programs in the 2009 fiscal year, which begins next October, because of deep-seated disagreements with President Bush about the government's overall spending levels and priorities.

But even if lawmakers do not actually provide many of those dollars authorized, a different provision of the bill could provide a significant boost to academic research on advanced biofuels other than corn-based ethanol. The bill mandates annual production by 2022 of 21-billion gallons of advanced biofuels, including 16-billion gallons of "cellulosic" ethanol.

A 2005 energy bill required refiners to produce 7.5-billion gallons of corn-based ethanol by 2012. But many experts worry that this production, using corn kernels, cannot be expanded much further without harming the environment and driving up food prices. To find an alternative, researchers are eager to unlock energy contained in plant cellulose, which makes up plants' stems and leaves. No commercial refineries currently derive ethanol this way (The Chronicle, April 20).
The House of Representatives approved the measure on Tuesday, 314 to 100. The Senate passed the bill last week, 86 to 8.

Congress may also include provisions on sustainable energy production when it considers a bill in 2008 to renew the Higher Education Act, which sets federal policies for colleges.