WASHINGTON - Politicians and scientists have long hyped electricity brewed every day by the omnipresent wind or free sunlight. Clean, quiet cars, they say, are right around the corner. And it's been promised that every lightbulb and appliance will churn with only a fraction of the power they use now.
It all feeds into a vision of a clean, cheap, stable life. And while everyone agrees the future looks bright, no one - particularly Congress - can agree on just how to get there.
The Bush administration unveiled its 100-page energy policy blueprints last May. Congress, meanwhile, has spent a year hammering out different versions of an energy road map. The House produced a bill in July and the Senate will begin its debate Feb. 13 or 14.
The major roadblocks on the way to the future, however, have come from technologies of today.
For the last year, the question of whether to drill for oil in Alaska's Arctic National Wildlife Refuge has been the marquee debate. Many Republicans argue that drilling there is necessary to boost domestic oil production, which has shrunk since 1971. The United States now imports nearly 57 percent of its oil - 20 percent from the Persian Gulf.
But environmentalists and Democrats say drilling would disrupt the environment for only enough oil to bump up production by a tiny notch. Their suggestion: instead of allowing more drilling, the government should invest more in research and incentives for people to buy cleaner energy systems.
"They are long-term solutions but you don't get to the long-term solutions without investing in the technologies now," said Carol Werner, executive director of the Environmental and Energy Study Institute, which briefs Congress on those issues. "You need to build stepping-stones to that future."
To serve as a bridge for electricity's future, Bush has pushed for $2 billion over 10 years for construction systems that prevent coal power plants from spewing harmful gases into the atmosphere. The House energy bill added nearly $20 billion in tax breaks and subsidies to encourage more production of fossil fuels - from natural gas to oil to coal.
Though Bush and many other Republicans argue that the money is intended to encourage efficient production and use of current fuels until the future arrives, critics say the clean coal systems are ineffective - like putting a Band-Aid on a severed limb.
Instead, the government should spend more to encourage companies to invest in wind, solar, geothermal and biomass generators, they say.
"Unless we get going quickly and rapidly with renewables, I think it's going to be difficult for us to meet many of the (future electricity) demands," said Sen. Wayne Allard, R-Colo. "In terms of the president's budget, I think we can probably do more."
To leave oil and fossil fuels behind, Allard and other renewable-fuel advocates say Congress should consider mandating that a certain percentage of the country's electricity come from renewable fuels by a target date. Last year, New York said it will generate 10 percent of its electricity from renewables by 2005 and 20 percent by 2010. Arizona, New Mexico and Texas have similar rules.
So the Senate must find some way to sort it all out, compromising on details like dollar figures and big debates like the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge.
"I can tell you a lot of ways that this legislation could come off the rails and digress into debates that are not central to our energy needs," said Sen. Jeff Bingaman, D-N.M., and chairman of the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee. "We will just have to see how the process evolves over the next several weeks."
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