Bingaman talks cleantech

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By Roger Snodgrass

SANTA FE – The Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee Chairman likes the idea of moving, leaning and looking “forward” for the next few months of energy legislation.


Sen. Jeff Bingaman, D-N.M, spoke at the Coronado Ventures Forum’s annual Cleantech Event for  the state’s entrepreneurial community Wednesday.


He emphasized tax incentives and credits for businesses, consumers and builders, and pointed to the recent eight-year extension of solar tax credits, as a positive trend for the future.


“I’m optimistic that President Obama and the new Congress is going to be forward-leaning in trying to do the right thing,” he said, on a range of issues related to renewable energy and energy efficiency.


A realist, he said his approach was “to find a consensus on the most aggressive plans we can get the votes to pass, and then advance from there.”


Coming up next week, Bingaman said, would be a test on spending priorities as Congress weighs what to do in a lame duck session to pass a stimulus package this month.


Characteristically cautious and hopeful, Bingaman does not see any major new programs about to be authorized, but would like to make “down payments on some long term objectives.”


Any authorizations of new programs would come in a major new energy bill that is already in process for consideration in the February or March time frame.


That will be an opportunity to revisit the tax structure that is now in the law or ought to be in the law, he said.


“Our ability to go ahead with clean technology,” Bingaman said, “will be affected by the global economic downturn, noting recent news that Texas billionaire T. Boone Pickens might be delaying his massive wind energy project because of the credit crunch and that Vera Sol, one of the largest ethanol companies, had filed for bankruptcy.


On the financial turmoil, he said, “We will work our way through that in some fashion and over some period of time.”


Asked about the impact of the mounting national debt on spending prospects, Bingaman said, “Most economists seem to share a consensus that we need to spend like drunken sailors until we get the economy growing again, then stop spending like drunken sailors.”


He observed that the President-elect is being urged in the short-term by members of both parties to do the opposite of what he is urged to do for the long-term, which is to cut spending.


On nuclear energy, Bingaman said a longstanding loan guarantee program under the Department of Energy has not worked.


“Not a single loan guarantee has been issued since 2005,” he said. “That’s a pretty good indication that something’s wrong.”


There may be some way to fix the program.


“But with the meltdown, those plans are probably on hold because the costs of building nuclear plants are enormous and the capability to borrow money is on hold,” he said.


More specifically asked if he saw a role for Los Alamos National Laboratory in the area of commercial nuclear reactors, Bingaman said it was unlikely and that he was not aware of anything there.


He did say the prospects are good for passing key elements of the America Competes Act that has drawn support but no funding for a major thrust in science and technology education and research.


While several members of the entrepreneurial community were asking each other before the meeting about rumors that Bingaman was on a list to become the next Secretary of Energy, Bingaman left no doubt that he was not under consideration and that he would not accept an offer anyway, and his answer was applauded.


Among the issues he discussed were “cap and trade” schemes and offsets for limiting carbon emissions,  “smart grid” infrastructure investments, foreign competition in the renewable energy market and utility regulation and market manipulation by gas and oil companies.


“There are proposals to have more transparency and better monitoring in those markets,” he said. “I don’t know that we could find the support to do more than that. Everybody else would want the same.”


Asked if Congress might put a floor under the price of oil, he said, “It’s hard to see a vote to keep prices from going down to their natural levels.”