Three of the nation's richest charitable foundations have put up $20 million to promote energy efficiency and the use of renewable fuels.

Citing "compelling economic, environmental and national security reasons to use energy more efficiently and to rely more heavily on renewable energy sources," leaders of the three organizations recently said they were making a long-term commitment to research, education and regulatory reform.

The foundations are the John T. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation, the Pew Charitable Trusts and the Rockfeller Foundation. Two were bankrolled by oil fortunes: Pew from Sunoco, Rockefeller from Standard Oil.

The money will be used to finance research, replicate successful local programs and support nonprofit energy conservation groups.

A separate foundation called the Energy Foundation, based in San Francisco, has been established to distribute the money.

The $20 million is an initial grant for three years, but the heads of the foundations Thursday promised more. "We're in this for the long haul," said MacArthur Foundation president Adele Simmons.

In interviews, the heads of the foundations refrained from criticizing the Bush administration or the Energy Department, which have been denounced by many conservation and environmental groups for failing to promote energy efficiency and conservation.

"There are things we can do that the government can't," Simmons said. "We can take greater risks" in deciding what to finance.

Simmons, Rockefeller Foundation president Peter Goldmark and Rebecca Rimel, excecutive director of the Pew Trusts, said they were convinced that energy efficiency is the one policy area where the public is ready for action and effective techniques are known to exist.

Much of their emphasis, they said, will be on encouraging electric utilities to adopt energy-saving programs that have proved successful when adopted by others, and on persuading state regulators to require such plans.