- The Washington Times - Monday, April 6, 2009

The land of tobacco is looking to renewable energy to revive itself.

A leader of Virginia’s legislature wants to use tobacco money to finance a new energy research corridor much like those for high technology in California’s Silicon Valley and medical research in Maryland.

Virginia House Speaker William J. Howell, Stafford Republican, told The Washington Times that he wants to turn southern Virginia, the tobacco-growing center of the commonwealth, into a hub for alternative-energy projects. His funding source: millions of dollars from a multibillion-dollar tobacco company settlement reached in the 1990s.

The southern and southwestern parts of the state are already home to a nuclear power plant, a broad-ranging research institute and coal-fired power plants. Mr. Howell told reporters and editors of The Times that expanding energy work there would be natural.

Using money from the tobacco settlement also makes sense, he said. The commonwealth is expected to receive $4 billion over the next 25 years from a settlement of lawsuits against the nation’s major tobacco companies, reached in 1998. Under Mr. Howell’s plan, $100 million of that would be used for research and development grants for alternative-energy projects in southern Virginia.

“We’ve already crossed the first big hurdle: a commitment from the Tobacco [Indemnification and Community Revitalization] Commission to use $100 million for energy projects,” Mr. Howell said. “That’s a huge and enormous amount of money which is available to basically foster and incubate leading-edge technologies coming into Virginia.”

Funding alternative-energy projects is consistent with what the commission was created to do - help revitalize and diversify the tobacco area, said Tim Pfohl, grants program director for the commission.

The commission has committed to investing the $100 million over three years for research, Mr. Pfohl said, with the hope of commercializing alternative-energy projects that now are too expensive to fund. The commission this year already has pledged $53 million toward a similar effort.

In addition, the commission previously used $36 million of its settlement funds to build research facilities in that part of the state. It plans to decide at a meeting this month whether it will give additional funds to the same research facilities or branch out to underwrite up-and-coming technologies.

“It’s very possible the $53 million could go to new projects, like those to turn algae and wood waste into energy,” Mr. Pfohl said.

He added that because of the commonwealth’s coal stockpile, the commission is spending large amounts of money on clean-coal technology.

Mr. Howell’s original proposal included a partnership with University of Virginia and Virginia Tech’s engineering departments. But a bill to foster these partnerships was defeated in the Virginia Senate in February.

State Sen. Frank M. Ruff Jr., Clarksville Republican, is a member of the Senate committee that declined to endorse the bill. Mr. Ruff said he objected to the two-university partnership when, he said, other higher educational institutions also should have input on decisions about which clean-energy projects should receive funding.

In the meantime, Mr. Howell also has been searching for venture capital funds to help bolster the tobacco commission’s investments.

“This public-private partnership is a great example of what we can do to stimulate business in the commonwealth and bring new business to the commonwealth,” he said.

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