By Tom Still

MADISON, Wis. – Every president, Republican and Democrat, likes to visit Main Street businesses. It’s a guaranteed news story in the city or state where Air Force One lands for the day, it usually helps local candidates of the same party, and the story often goes national if the president uses the setting to make a larger point about his administration’s policies.

Sometimes, of course, it’s little more than a “photo op,” but there’s usually more substance than not behind the typical Bring-a-President-to-Work Day. President Obama’s recent stop at ZBB Energy Corp. in Menomonee Falls was just such an example.

Among other Wisconsin stops more political in nature, Obama toured ZBB Energy Aug. 16 to underscore his support for the search for sources of alternative energy. The size of the federal investment in energy research and development suggests it’s no casual commitment.

ZBB builds energy storage systems that link with renewable energy systems, which allows electrical power to continue flowing when wind turbines aren’t spinning or solar panels aren’t collecting rays from the sun. ZBB Energy is expanded production of its rechargeable zinc bromide flow batteries (hence the ZBB name) and intelligent power control platforms with the help of a $1.3 million state energy loan. That loan, financed by the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, will be repaid over seven years.

Obama’s 10-minute talk with ZBB employees and suppliers was a reminder of the growing federal investment in energy research and development – and the potential for that investment to revive the manufacturing economy in states such as Wisconsin.

“We expect our commitment to clean energy to lead to more than 800,000 jobs by 2012,” Obama said. “And that’s not just creating work in the short term. That’s going to help lay the foundation for lasting economic growth.”

The feds are placing a big bet and spreading it across the table. From advanced batteries to next-generation biofuels, the federal government has become one of the largest investors in a sector that many traditional private-sector investors find too futuristic and more than a bit risky.

The ZBB loan is an example of money distributed through ARRA, the main stimulus bill. But federal investments are also taking place through other Department of Energy grants, especially those made through the Advanced Research Projects Agency-Energy. Known as ARPA-E, this agency is patterned after the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, a Pentagon research arm that has been credited with seeding projects as large as the Internet.

With a $400 million budget over two years, ARPA-E is funding projects that range from renewable replacements for oil-based fuels, better batteries and much more. Wisconsin has the know-how and the basic resources to attract its fair share of those R&D dollars.

In addition to ZBB, Wisconsin-based Johnson Controls is in the forefront of the U.S. effort to regain prominence in the battery market. Johnson Controls received a $299.2 million stimulus grant in 2009, the largest of its type awarded, to build domestic manufacturing capacity for advanced batteries for electric-drive vehicles. From a sliver of the market for advanced batteries for hybrid and electric vehicles, the United States could amass 40 percent of the world’s capacity within a few years.

Wisconsin is also well-positioned to provide answers in the search for biofuels. The Great Lakes Bioenergy Research Center in Madison was one of three centers of its kind funded by the Department of Energy a few years ago. It is focused on unlocking energy-bearing sugars in cellulose, the basic structural component of plant cell walls. While freeing sugars from cellulose can be done, the trick is doing so at a price and at a scale that allows biofuels to compete with gasoline and diesel.

Some Wisconsin companies may have an edge in the race to produce “next-generation” biofuels, which are biofuels other than corn-based ethanol. One such company is Virent Energy Systems, which is already producing modest amounts of a “green gasoline” that could be delivered through today’s gasoline pumps. Wisconsin is also rich with potential sources of raw materials for biofuels, from plants to trees to agricultural and paper industry wastes.

Presidential plant tours come and go, but long-term policies have staying power. The federal investment in energy research is huge and becoming more substantial by the day. If Wisconsin’s members of Congress and candidates for governor are looking for a stimulus program they can support, the need look no further than federal energy investments that are tailor-made for the state’s strengths in research, natural resources and manufacturing.

Still is president of the Wisconsin Technology Council. He is the former associate editor of the Wisconsin State Journal in Madison.