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Plug pulled on renewable energy gurus

The day Carol Tombari got fired plays in her head like a scene from a cheesy espionage thriller.

She arrived at work and was told to appear at a mandatory meeting in 20 minutes. It was there that she learned she was being laid off and that she had five hours to pack and vacate the premises.

When she returned to her desk, her computer had been disabled, her phone service cut.

She had to cancel an appearance the next day at a regional mayors' caucus. Her presentation on the importance of energy efficiency to local governments was locked in her computer.

She was among the disappeared from the National Renewable Energy Laboratory in Golden, where 31 workers were dismissed seven days after President Bush read the words "addicted to oil" off the teleprompter and announced yet another "Advanced Energy Initiative."

"It was a week to the day after the State of the Union," Tombari said. The single mother of three with a son in college was given one month's severance pay.

"I can understand budget cuts. I can understand realigning the mission at NREL. But being treated like a corporate saboteur, that was rough," said Tombari, who has worked in energy policy for more than 25 years.

John Thornton, an engineer and 28-year veteran at NREL, is another casualty of the post-State of the Union sweep. He was given until March 31 to get out.

"You never know with these budgets," said Thornton, who survived an NREL purge during the Reagan administration.

Still, the political shenanigans have a crippling impact on research. Projects are abandoned, careers are interrupted, lives are thrown into turmoil.

The scientists at NREL "have no peer," U.S. Department of Energy spokesman Craig Stevens crowed last week.

They also have no job security.

Tombari's job was to work with state and local governments to incorporate new technologies into public policies. Before she came to NREL in 1993, she directed the Texas Energy Office for 10 years.

"I loved my job," she said. "Ideally, if I had the money, I would do what I was doing at NREL for free. Those of us who worked at NREL had a real passion for the technology."

It's technology so marginalized few Americans even realize it exists.

"Our current institutions and processes are stacked against emerging energy technologies," Tombari said.

Just look at the decades-old techniques available for saving energy in lighting, heating and manufacturing. If they were adopted, Tombari said, they would be "virtual power plants," creating enormous volumes of energy by reclaiming what is wasted.

Or just look at the collapse of the U.S. auto industry, while Toyota devours market share with its hot hybrids.

Ironically, Tombari said, "A lot of the hybrid technology was developed right here at NREL" - and ignored.

Detroit automakers knew how to build fuel-efficient cars; they simply chose not to. As a result, they ceded the technology - and the market - to the Japanese.

"It's really astounding that the public knows as little as it does about the work that goes on at NREL," said Tombari. "I mean, the research is great, but unless it gets into the marketplace, it's a waste."

Despite our lack of appreciation for NREL, many of its innovations will continue to find their way into the international marketplace. With high oil and gas prices, there's too much money to be made in alternative energy technologies to stop them. "The industry is exploding internationally," said Thornton.

While our commitment to developing alternative energy sources in the U.S. too often is just empty rhetoric - "greenwashing," Tombari calls it - around the world it's the Holy Grail.

"There's a tremendous market out there," said Thornton, who hopes to be able to work with his friends at NREL again someday. In the meantime, though, he said not to worry. The former NREL scientists will land on their feet.

It's the Advanced Energy Initiative that could be in trouble.

Editorial Notes: Should one laugh or cry? Related: Bush pencils in visit to NREL "Golden stop would highlight U.S. efforts to develop alternatives to oil" (Denver Post) -BA

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