Filling the Blanks of an Empty Clean Energy Budget Proposal

The Trump administration rolled out its Fiscal Year 2019 budget for the U.S. Department of Energy this week. As feared, it proposed disastrous cuts with very few details and was devoid of new ideas for clean energy and energy efficiency. Huge cuts, like the 67 percent to the Office of Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy (EERE), leave no room to fund DOE clean energy research initiatives at a time when investing in clean energy has proven to help create millions of jobs, clean up our air, and make our energy more affordable. While Congress has already signaled its intent to ignore most of this, as it does every year, this proposal represents this administration’s priorities.

The nation is witnessing great clean energy success but it did not happen overnight. Clean energy breakthroughs require years of sustained research funding, as promising research pathways are investigated, evaluated, and finally proved, disproved, or found inconclusive. Until recently, a president’s budget request was a treasure trove of new research ideas, identified by the world’s foremost energy experts and leading scientists from industry, academia and DOE’s national laboratories.

Given the rapid transformation occurring in the global energy system, there is no shortage of research ideas competing for funding. Clean energy innovation funding can and should be on track to double over the next several years—not subject to deep cuts that will cause irreparable harm to technological advances.  Not to mention elimination of non-research oriented programs like DOE’s weatherization assistance program, which has improved the lives of 7 million low-income families since 1979 by sealing up and insulating drafty, uncomfortable homes—and reducing high energy bills.

The DOE can and should reasonably and responsibly invest taxpayer funds in order to deepen the United States’ longstanding commitment to economic growth through technological innovation—and that starts with clean energy.

Progress to be proud of

The innovation programs at DOE have been an enormously successful use of taxpayer money. When Congress appropriates funds to the DOE’s research and development programs, most of that money goes to the world’s leading energy researchers, who have spent decades conceiving of transformative energy inventions, making existing technologies better, increasing access and affordability, and quietly charting the course for our nation’s energy future.

These researchers have transformed the energy sector—and expanded the realm of possibilities for what’s yet to come.

From 2010 to 2016 with support from DOE-led research, the installation cost of solar came down by over 70 percent, and the total number of solar installations increased by, on average, 68 percent every year. Solar energy technology—what could once only power a calculator—now powers the homes of millions of Americans, significantly reduces climate-warming pollution, and employs over 370,000 people nationwide.

The cost of wind energy keeps getting lower, too. Last year brought record-low prices for wind energy—a median price of $18 per megawatt-hour (MWh) for recent utility proposals for new electricity generation in Colorado. By comparison, last year’s nationwide average cost for new generation was $102/MWh for coal and $60/MWh for gas. Thanks in part to innovation-driven cost reductions, 85 gigawatts (GW) of wind power, across 41 states, supplied over 6 percent of the country’s electricity demand in 2017.

DOE investments in energy efficiency have had an equally powerful impact on the American people. The research and development programs funded by DOE improve lighting, appliances, building systems, grid efficiency, and much more. For example, thanks to DOE programs, LED (light-emitting diode) bulbs—which consume up to 85 percent less energy than their incandescent counterparts—have dropped in price by 94 percent since 2009, and over 400 million LED bulbs have brightened American homes and businesses as a result.

The Building Technologies Office (BTO), which heads up much of the energy efficiency research for our homes, businesses and industry, provides a phenomenal return on taxpayer investment for major efficiency technologies. A recent BTO report showed that R&D investments for just three technologies—flame retention head oil burner, advanced refrigeration, and heat pump design model and alternative refrigerants—returned benefits from energy saved of $20 for every $1 invested. And with less conservative assumptions and inclusion of health impacts, BTO estimates the benefit could be as high as $261 for every $1 in.

All of these success stories have benefited from consistent, long-term investment by the federal government. With such amazing benefits from energy and financial savings, it would be dangerous to stop funding and put future progress at risk. But President Trump has proposed to do exactly that. And with a 67 percent cut to EERE what innovative ideas got left on the cutting room floor?

Untapped potential

In a proposal full of massive cuts and notably empty of details, the White House is missing out on an incredible opportunity to create a clean energy future that benefits all of us.

Greater investment in DOE innovation would continue to make solar and wind technologies cheaper and more efficient, but it would also increase the likelihood of breakthroughs that respond to today’s needs and rise to the challenges of tomorrow.

American innovation is delivering new technology and opportunities to enhance the nation’s security and create jobs while reducing pollution. The energy decisions we make today will shape our economic and environmental future. Congress should reject this proposal and put serious thought and consideration into a spending bill that could define the nation’s foremost energy research initiatives, providing needed opportunities for Americans across the country.

About the Authors

Elizabeth Noll

Deputy Director, Congressional & External Affairs, Climate & Clean Energy Program

Arjun Krishnaswami

Schneider Fellow, Congressional & External Affairs, Climate & Clean Energy Program

Join Us

When you sign up you'll become a member of NRDC's Activist Network. We will keep you informed with the latest alerts and progress reports.