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Double energy research, end subsidies

This week, the U.S. Senate is likely to vote on President Obama’s plan to end oil subsidies and extend wind-power subsidies.

If we really want to lower fuel prices, we should instead double energy research. To pay for it without adding to the federal debt, we should stop wasteful, long-term subsidies to both “Big Oil” and “Big Wind.”

Look at shale gas, now being produced thanks to energy research. The U.S. suddenly has a 100-year supply of natural gas at one fourth the prices in Europe and Asia. This will lure manufacturing jobs and provide cheap fuel for cars and trucks.

I drive an all-electric Nissan Leaf and pay about $3 to travel 100 miles – better than spending an equivalent of $20 on gasoline. Last month, researchers announced a way to double the density of lithium ion batteries, hastening arrival of $20,000 electric cars that get 300 miles per charge.

The U.S. should launch a series of mini-Manhattan Projects, with the same focus and determination of the World War II project, this time with the goal of discovering ways to find more energy and use less of it.

The U.S. has research universities and national laboratories that no other country has. They can advance research on cheaper solar, better batteries, recapturing carbon from coal plants, biofuels from crops we don’t eat, better ways to dispose of used nuclear fuel, offshore wind, green buildings and fusion.

To double the $5 billion the U.S. now spends on energy research, Congress should end tax breaks for Big Oil and Big Wind. Of every $3 saved, use $1 for more research and $2 to reduce the federal debt.

There is no justification for tax breaks that exclusively benefit Big Oil. But neither is there justification for extending the Big Wind gravy train.

Two weeks ago, the Senate refused to extend the 20-year-old “temporary” renewable production tax credit, which mostly benefits wind. Total federal subsidies for developers of huge wind turbines will cost taxpayers $14 billion from 2009 to 2013, according to the U.S. Treasury. This is more than the cost of special tax breaks exclusively for Big Oil.

There are three reasons Big Wind subsidies should go the way of the ethanol subsidy Congress let expire last year:

First, we can’t afford it. The U.S. government borrows 40 cents of every dollar it spends and cannot justify subsidizing what the U.S. energy secretary calls “a mature technology.”

Second, wind turbines produce a relatively puny amount of expensive, unreliable electricity. With alternatives like clean natural gas and cleaner nuclear power available, using windmills, which now provide only 2.3 percent of our electricity, to power a country that uses one-fourth of the world’s electricity would be the energy equivalent of going to war in sailboats.

TVA has built 18 massive wind turbines on 3,300-foot Buffalo Mountain outside Knoxville. Other than deface the landscape and waste ratepayer dollars, the turbines have done little. The wind there blows only 19 percent of the time.

In Nashville, a “small” turbine as tall as The Parthenon is about to be built on Love Circle. It would take 1.1 million of these eyesores to equal the production of TVA’s new Watts Bar nuclear reactor – at 15 times the cost. And you would still need the reactor for when the wind doesn’t blow.

Finally, giant turbines destroy the environment in the name of saving it. When wind advocate T. Boone Pickens was asked whether he would put turbines on his Texas ranch, he answered, “No. They’re ugly.” And birds must think they’re Cuisinarts in the sky: Eagle killing has become so commonplace that the federal government grants licenses for “eagle taking.”

A policy of doubling energy research and ending wasteful tax breaks for both Big Oil and Big Wind can lower fuel prices and help balance our budget.

U.S. Sen. Lamar Alexander, a Republican, is Tennessee’s senior senator.