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What’s at Stake as Trump Takes Aim at Clean Energy Research

Defunding programs like ARPA-E and the Office of Energy Efficiency would stall clean energy advances and cost jobs.
January 31, 2017

Clean energy researchers are bracing for federal funding cuts that could stunt the development of sustainable technologies, amid reports the Trump administration intends to shut down or slash resources for a long list of Department of Energy programs.

At this stage, few can say with confidence which renewable energy initiatives and what level of cutbacks the Trump team will target, possibly even within the administration itself. But any significant reductions could have wide-reaching effects on energy and climate research, ultimately stalling job creation and greenhouse gas reductions.

Staffers and scientists in DOE labs were particularly alarmed earlier this month by an article in The Hill reporting that the Trump administration wants to radically downsize the department. That and subsequent stories said the team was drawing guidance from a 2016 Heritage Foundation report that, among many other cutbacks, called for the outright elimination of the moonshot Advanced Research Projects Agency–Energy program (ARPA-E), the Office of Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy (EERE), and the Office of Fossil Energy, which is focused on carbon capture and storage research efforts, including "clean coal."

Government sources, energy researchers, and policy experts, some of whom spoke on background, say the story didn’t describe a finalized proposal so much as a bombastic opening ante in what’s sure to be a contentious fiscal 2018 budget debate. But there's a general consensus that the White House and Congressional Republicans will push for sizable cuts to the renewable energy and environmental research efforts that steadily grew under President Obama. It's just a question of where, how deep, and what will ultimately pass.

At least some fear that ARPA-E, EERE, and climate research efforts under the Biological and Environmental Research Program are especially vulnerable, in part because they were under Republican attack even before Trump took office.

Since it was funded in 2009 under the stimulus bill, ARPA-E has invested in hundreds of clean energy research projects in batteries, smart grid technologies, thermal storage, carbon capture, biofuels, vehicle efficiency, and much more. Several projects have spun out into private businesses, including Fluidic Energy and 1366 Technologies.

Meanwhile, EERE provides 80 percent of the funding to the National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL) in Golden, Colorado. The lab employs nearly 1,700 people, publishes more than 1,000 scientific papers a year, and has developed more than 800 patent or patent-pending technologies, according to its website.

"It's my hope that the president recognizes the value these labs serve in promising science in the public interest," says Andrew Beebe, managing director at Obvious Ventures and a member of NREL's investment advisory board. "Clean, more affordable, safer, more reliable energy is not a partisan issue."

In an e-mail, NREL spokeswoman Heather Lammers said the lab couldn't speculate on the potential impact of Trump's policies, since they aren't yet known. The Department of Energy didn’t respond to an inquiry.

The Heritage Foundation report also calls for shuttering DOE’s Biological and Environmental Research Program, the Energy Innovation Hubs, and the Office of Electricity Deliverability and Energy Reliability, which is working to modernize the electricity grid. In addition, the plan advocates funding cuts for the Office of Nuclear Energy and the Basic Energy Sciences program.

The proposals come at a point when the dangers of climate change, and the necessity of rapidly shifting to zero emissions technologies, are becoming increasingly clear. Studies conclude that meeting growing energy demands while lowering greenhouse gas emissions to safer levels will require significant advances in renewable energy technologies. Some of the biggest gaps remain in sustainable liquid fuels, carbon capture, energy storage, smart grid technologies, and renewable energy efficiency and costs—precisely the sort of research efforts underway at many of these DOE programs.

There would be significant political resistance to many of these proposals, including within Republican ranks, says Dan Reicher, executive director of the Steyer-Taylor Center for Energy Policy and Finance at Stanford. After all, renewable energy makes up a growing portion of the job and tax base in many red states. Notably, that includes the fast-growing wind industry in the home state of former Texas Governor Rick Perry, Trump's nominee for energy secretary.

Indeed, some note that significant DOE cuts would stand at sharp odds with Trump’s professed focus on job creation, since the research in these labs often transfers into the private sector. Careers in solar and wind are already among the fastest-growing job sectors in the U.S. economy. In addition, the ongoing shift to low emissions technologies, including additional nuclear power, could generate four million jobs through 2030, according to an earlier study at the University of California, Berkeley.

"If you can leave ideology behind, which I don't think this administration seems able to do, we know these things create jobs," says Daniel Kammen, director of UC Berkeley’s Renewable and Appropriate Energy Laboratory. "You would think these people will have some level of common sense, but the White House, sadly, is showing none."

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