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New Momentum For Alternative Fuels

The political turmoil in the Middle East could provide the strongest incentive yet for the United States to increase research into renewable energy to reduce its dependence on foreign oil, supporters of alternative energy sources say.

Foreign countries produced more than half the oil America consumed last year, with Persian Gulf countries producing close to a quarter of those imports.

"The less encumbered our foreign policy is to economic interests, the better," said Hal Harvey, president of the Energy Foundation, a San Francisco-based nonprofit group that promotes renewable energy. "When you're sort of a drug addict trying to negotiate with a dealer, you don't have a lot of cards."

Bush administration officials say the president's national energy plan, which passed in the House but is languishing in the Senate, sets a course to increase the use of lower-polluting technologies to help reduce dependence on foreign oil. More than half of the plan's 105 recommendations relate to energy efficiency and renewable energy sources.

The country can't come close to gaining energy independence without renewable sources, said Sen. Harry Reid, D-Nev.

Last week, he and Sen. Gordon Smith, R-Ore., introduced legislation to renew the federal tax credit for wind power and expand it to include solar, biomass, geothermal and other renewable energies.

Reid said concerns over national security eventually will draw more legislators from both parties toward expanding renewable energy.

"We're at a point now where I think we have no alternative," he said.

But Rep. Mark Udall, D-Colo., a member of the House Resources and Science committees, said colleagues who favor increased U.S. drilling to reduce dependence on foreign oil — including opening drilling in Alaska's Arctic National Wildlife Refuge — aren't budging.

Debates about fossil-fuel use largely focus on petroleum and the vehicles that consume it.

Automakers, government officials and environmentalists speak optimistically about the potential of fuel-cell technology, which they say eventually could replace gasoline to power motor vehicles.

"We think it's a key competitive race among manufacturers: Who'll be first to produce large volumes of these vehicles?" General Motors Corp. spokesman Dave Barthmuss said. "I don't know that we could move any faster."

GM and other automakers will be showing off their progress starting Friday by running 65 fuel-cell and alternative-fuel vehicles in the Michelin Challenge Bibendum. The three-day event includes performance tests at the California Speedway in Fontana and a 226-mile road rally to Las Vegas.

Still, fuel-cell vehicles aren't likely to be a common sight in driveways anytime soon.

It is expected to take a decade or more to make fuel cells affordable, set up fueling stations and ensure the vehicles can safely handle the ultralight, flammable hydrogen they use.

By LEON DROUIN KEITH
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