More Federal Investment in Clean Energy—a Winning Strategy

Appropriations season for funding the federal government and its functions is in full swing, and we all should be tuning in. Members of Congress and staff are busy allocating important federal dollars to programs and initiatives that serve Americans across the country. The clean energy programs run by the Department of Energy (DOE) are just one example of enormously successful use of taxpayer money—and it needs to continue for the good of our nation. That’s the message a Senate committee is sending to the Trump administration.

As a result of DOE’s long-term research efforts, wind turbine height has increased by 49 percent, enabling turbines to capture higher speed winds; breakthroughs in solar have settled the debate—solar energy can deliver stable, low cost power in all corners of the country; and lithium-ion battery costs decreased by 70 percent from 2008 to 2016, making electric vehicles (EVs) more affordable and marketable. Greater investment in DOE innovation would continue this track record of success.

The Senate Appropriations Committee passed the Energy and Water Development Appropriations Act for fiscal year (FY) 2019 last week—sending a clear signal to the Trump administration that cuts to energy efficiency and renewable energy programs will not fly. The president’s budget proposal would gut the Office of Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy (EERE) for the second year in a row, proposing to slash its funding by 67 percent, including dramatic cuts to solar and wind research and complete elimination of the important Weatherization Assistance Program that helps low-income homeowners save money on their energy bills. The Senate appropriators said no thank you and pursued a more stable course.

Highlights of the budget proposal they approved and now goes to the full Senate for consideration:

  • Provides $2.32 billion for EERE (same as FY18 level), including language directing DOE to appropriate funds prioritizing both early and late stage research;
  • Directs DOE to work on energy storage technologies, including $41 million for research, development and demonstration on grid-scale energy storage, which can support better peak demand usage of renewable energy;
  • Provides for Front-End Engineering and Design (FEED) assistance for two commercial-scale carbon capture power projects to retrofit an existing coal plant and for a coal or natural gas plant that generates CO2 (carbon dioxide) suitable for utilization or storage; and
  • $375 million for DOE’s Advanced Research Projects Agency-Energy (ARPA-E)—up $22 million from FY18.

The U.S. House of Representatives appropriations committee also passed its version of the Energy and Water Development Act for FY19. While it is a significant improvement over last year’s version and also completely rejected the Trump administration’s proposal, sadly it scaled back investments in clean energy when it should be ramping them up. It also included harmful anti-environmental policy “riders”, like a dangerous rider that serves to undermine the Clean Water Rule, threatening the health of our nation’s waters. These and others like it have no place in a spending bill and are why NRDC and 13 other environmental organizations opposed the bill.

Highlights of this bill that now moves on to the full House:

  • Cuts EERE by $243 million (about 10 percent) from FY18 levels, to $2.08 billion—still a large increase over the $1.1 billion in the House bill the year before;
  • Cuts ARPA-E by $28 million, to $325 million—up from $0 in the House bill the year before;
  • Funds the Office of Electricity Delivery and Energy Reliability at $175 million with an emphasis on energy storage technologies; and
  • Included language encouraging early-, mid-, and late-stage research activities for a more comprehensive approach so as to not forego the nation’s scientific capabilities…and fully realize the technological advancements possible.

Investing in clean energy creates jobs for people of different skill sets and education levels, adding to millions of clean energy jobs across the country. It helps protects the health of children and counters the real effects of climate change by avoiding fossil fuel-fired power generation. Congress—both the House and Senate—is moving in the right direction, but should do so much more. There is no shortage of opportunities waiting to be tapped by investing in clean energy innovation.

Future research, development, and demonstration investments should include efforts to overcome the technical challenges associated with bringing cleaner energy onto the grid and support investments in next-generation infrastructure that will deliver a clean energy economy for all.

The action by House and Senate appropriators shows Congress is slowly coming around, but the Trump administration should too. Prioritizing innovation for clean energy would not be hard to do. For example, there is $41 billion in remaining loan-making capacity for clean energy and transportation within the Loan Program Office at DOE. This could be a significant down payment for clean energy innovation. But instead, the administration proposed to shutter the program, by requesting that congress reverse course and rescind funding from the spending bill it just signed.

Next week the House of Representatives will move the Energy and Water Development Appropriations bill to the House floor. Members of the House should continue to reject the damaging proposals from the administration that gut clean energy programs. Members should stand up for values shared by millions of Americans—ones of clean air and clean water, innovation, and progress. Members should refrain from loading the bill up with unnecessary policy “riders.” Instead, members should support robust funding at DOE for essential clean energy technologies, initiatives, and programs. We all win when we lead with clean energy.

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