No Dodging the Energy Budget for Rick Perry This Time

In testimony to Congress last year, the newly installed Energy secretary Rick Perry famously wiped his hands of the White House’s embarrassing budget proposal, saying it didn’t reflect his policy priorities.  

  • Eliminate funding for energy innovators through ARPA-E?
  • Slash funding for the department’s treasured national labs?
  • Scrap funding to help low-income homeowners weatherize their homes?
  • Phase out a loan program for innovative energy and advanced auto manufacturing?

Not me, Perry said: The budget “was written before I got here,” he told lawmakers then. “My job is to defend it.”

Well, as they say in Texas, that dog won’t hunt anymore. It’s Rick Perry’s budget plan this year. Despite Perry being on the job for a year he is set to go to Congress again and defend the Department of Energy (DOE) budget plan that looks much the same as it did a year ago. So, how will Perry dodge tough questions this year? We’ve identified a few of his and his staff’s favorite tropes. Each is bunk and here’s why: 

Bunk #1: Clean-energy technologies are victims of their own success.

Under Secretary of Energy, Mark Menezes, recently told reporters that energy efficiency, renewable energy and electric vehicle (EV) programs are a victim of their own success. He maintains that falling renewable energy prices and more EVs on the road means that the federal government no longer needs to invest in the same kinds of research and development (R&D) investments. Is this a reasonable justification for the $1.3 billion cut (-65%) Perry has proposed for DOE’s Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy (EERE) office?

No.

Stopping now would be like stopping research in home-movie technology after the VCR was in place. Sure, watching Back to the Future on tape felt was revolutionary at the time, but not long after that DVDs took over the market. And now we all can stream our movies without worrying the tape will jam.

Solar and wind are just getting started as well. Just last year, DOE announced a goal to cut solar prices in half by 2030 by developing new technologies like perovskites. New materials and computing have the potential to vastly increase the height and output of wind farms. Wind, solar, energy storage and other clean technologies are at the VCR phase - and Secretary Perry’s budget stands in the way of the United States reaping the rewards that come with further developing them here at home.

Meanwhile, China is increasing its investments in R&D. In 2016 China already outspent the U.S. by $100 billion on economy-wide energy R&D. There is a huge global market for clean energy and clean vehicle technologies, and Secretary Perry’s budget will relegate the United States to the backseat.

Bunk #2: The Trump administration supports energy innovation.

In addition to the budget hearing, Perry will be at the ARPA-E Summit this week. Brave of him to show up there given that for the second year in a row the administration’s budget proposed eliminating funding for that small but influential program.

ARPA-E supports the development and financing of innovative new energy technologies that will create a more secure, affordable, and sustainable American energy future. Since its official start in 2009, ARPA-E has provided over $1.5 billion in grants and funding to more than 580 projects (as of February 2017) across the nation. In turn, these ARPA-E projects have created over 50 new U.S. companies and attracted more than $1.8 billion in new, private-sector funding.

Last year Secretary Perry tweeted: “Innovators like the ones supported by our @ARPAE program are key to advancing America's energy economy.” Now that he wants to get rid of it, does he no longer think that innovation is critical? If so, that’s a sad mistake.

Bunk #3: No matter the budget request, DOE will adhere statutory obligations.

Federal agencies are obliged to spend the money appropriated to them by Congress. Failure to do so is called impoundment. Further, agencies have an obligation to meet deadlines established in statute. After reports that Perry blocked  contracts, Democrats requested a GAO investigation saying it showed the administration wanted to “shut down the agency without congressional authorization.”

When asked, Administration officials continue to give every assurance that they will act as directed by Congress and meet their statutory deadlines, but their track record so far tells a different story:

  • Last year, ARPA-E withheld $91 million—at the direction of DOE leadership. This impoundment led to lost jobs and disruption to the competitive prospects of several ARPA-E projects, according to the Government Accountability Office and Congress was not pleased. Senator Cantwell and 27 Senators wrote to Sec. Perry demanding he stop playing politics with science.  
  • Earlier this year, DOE illegally delayed four energy efficiency standards that will save American consumers and businesses over $8 billion in energy costs. Currently, there are 14 efficiency standards past legal deadlines and at least 5 more proposed or final rules due by the end of 2018 which DOE appears to be on track to miss.

Bunk #4: DOE is reasserting the proper role of the Federal government on early-stage R&D, not commercial aid.

The President’s budget request proposes a shift away from later stage R&D activities to refocus the Department on an early stage research and development mission. This arbitrary restriction on demonstration and field validation stymies clean energy R&D, including DOE’s efforts to develop better solar panels, taller wind turbines, next generation fuels, and building efficiency technologies.

Clean energy innovation requires both early- and late-stage research, and separating the two ignores the realities of the innovation cycle. Cutting-edge research in the basic sciences lays the necessary foundation for the development of deployable, cost-effective technologies that advance clean energy. Even the biggest companies rely on this mid-range research help from the Energy Department:

"The suite of capabilities offered by the national labs are unattainable anywhere else in the industry and are critical to the industry's ability to understand how to better operate and plan our system for the future," Anuja Ratnayake of Duke Energy Corp. testified to the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee last year. She cited how a partnership with the Pacific Northwest National Laboratory helped Duke model increasing amounts of solar and storage on the grid in a way the utility couldn't have done on its own.

Insufficiently funding late stage R&D will impede integration of early stage research and development into the US energy system from our nation’s research enterprise and thus will not adequately deliver innovative energy technologies, practices and information to American consumers and companies. 

Bunk #5: DOE supports “basic science” research.

Despite getting panned for proposing a 17 percent cut to DOE’s basic science research account last year, the Administration was poised to propose even deeper cuts this year. The White House released a document that proposed a 20 percent, $1.2 billion cut to basic science research at DOE. But, thankfully, last minute actions by Congress last month to increase the budget caps helped restore this funding and maintain a steady top line for DOE’s basic science research in FY19.

Unfortunately, the final budget proposal for the DOE’s Office of Science still manages to make one huge cut for—drumroll please—climate science research. Buried deep in the documents, you’ll find a 40 percent, $123 million cut to the Office of Science’s Earth and Environmental Systems Science research line. This cutting edge basic science supports the development of high-resolution Earth system modeling and analysis, which forms the basis of global climate models. Without this work, our understanding of how the Earth's climate is changing, and what that means for our cities, infrastructure, and health would be crippled.

So, when they say they support basic science—remember, these climate deniers like Rick Perry really mean they only support certain kinds of basic science.

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