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Budget Games Threaten Clean Energy and Efficiency Gains

NRDC Expert Blog by Elizabeth Noll

Hot on the heels of a State of the Union address that claimed to “end the war on American energy” but ignored the booming clean energy industry, a leaked budget proposal from the Trump administration suggests that federal funding for renewable energy and efficiency programs should be slashed 72 percent in the next fiscal year. The official proposal will be released later this month, but the leaked draft shows the Trump administration is continuing its attempts to undercut America’s clean energy success.

When asked about the leaked Fiscal Year 2019 budget, a DOE spokesperson claimed that the agency’s track record of funding wind and solar proves Energy Secretary Rick Perry’s support for renewable energy. The fact that Trump’s DOE has attempted to slash renewable funding by 69 percent last year and 72 percent this year tells a very different story about the clean energy commitment from this administration.

The leaked budget proposes debilitating cuts to the Department of Energy’s Office of Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy, which funds clean energy research, consumer savings programs, and other initiatives that enhance clean energy and efficiency and reduce strain on the power grid. Congress will have to step up—as the Senate did—to protect funding for clean energy and efficiency for Fiscal Year 2018 and beyond by providing direct and detailed guidance to the DOE on how to spend existing funds, so that vital clean energy research and savings programs can continue. 

Money-saving, Job-creating Programs Would Be Cut

The budget for research in solar technology would drop 78 percent, according to the leaked draft, slowing to a crawl the work that has scaled up solar power and brought down costs. Combined with Trump’s tariffs on imported solar cells and equipment, this move would be a serious threat to one of the fastest growing job sectors in the U.S. Funding for electric vehicle and fuel-efficient car technologies also would be slashed by more than 80 percent. Research into energy-saving building technology, geothermal energy, wind and bioenergy would all be similarly eviscerated.

Among the more unkind cuts in the leaked proposal is the elimination of the weatherization assistance program, a 40-year-old DOE initiative that helps tens of thousands of low-income families every year by plugging drafts, improving insulation, and installing other energy-efficient upgrades that make homes warmer and safer. Many cold weather states have more than 1,000 people on the waiting list for the program, which has helped 7 million families save an average of $283 on energy bills every year. In a typical year, the program also fuels 8,500 local jobs.

Funding support is also vital for simply meeting DOE’s legal obligations for highly successful programs like its energy efficiency standards for appliances and equipment, which have already saved consumers billions on energy bills and will reach $2 trillion in savings by 2030. As of last month, the DOE has missed legal deadlines for eight new and updated product standards, and indefinitely delayed a dozen more. This tactic puts hundreds of billions of dollars of consumer savings at risk.

Improper Funding Delays Hurt Homes and Businesses

In the end it is Congress, and not the White House, that determines spending. But if the current budgetary indecision in Washington persists, the Trump DOE can let things slide. The Government Accountability Office has chastised the DOE for improperly withholding funds for the Advanced Research Projects Agency-Energy (ARPA-E), an incubator that has spawned the formation of 56 new companies and attracted $1.8 billion in private investment. Despite the agency’s track record of innovation, it and other programs have been on the president’s chopping block.

NRDC and other clean energy and efficiency advocates are asking congressional budget leaders to instruct the DOE to maintain current funding levels for existing clean energy and efficiency programs so they can continue as Congress intended. Without a clear directive from Congress, the Trump DOE will likely let clean energy and efficiency initiatives languish.

Basic vs. Applied Research Is a False Choice

Clean energy innovation requires both early- and late-stage research, and separating the two does not bode well. Cutting-edge research in the basic sciences lays the necessary foundation for the development of deployable, cost-effective applied technologies that advance the clean energy economy.

When Trump administration and agency officials have been called to Congress to speak on agency priorities, they convey a clear focus on early-stage research and basic science but ignore funding for middle and late-stage research, such as field testing and commercialization of new technologies. This arbitrary restriction to applied research hinders valuable opportunities that the Department of Energy is uniquely capable of pursuing to deliver benefits to every consumer across the country.

 “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," testified Anuja Ratnayake, director of emerging technology strategy at Duke Energy Corp. in front of the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee last year. She noted 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.

The administration’s attacks on clean energy development ignore some basic facts, not just about climate change but about the economic benefits of clean energy and energy efficiency. The fastest-growing jobs in America, according to the Bureau of Labor, are solar panel installer and wind turbine service technician. Some 2.2 million Americans work in energy efficiency, in places like Texas, Iowa and North Carolina. The cost of clean renewable energy keeps on falling, and in the West, wind and solar is cheaper than gas and coal. Energy efficiency is now America’s biggest energy resource. Efficient appliances alone save American families an average of $500 every year on electric bills. It’s no wonder that clean energy has earned bipartisan support in state legislatures and among Americans nationwide. Congress needs to step in to ensure that vital clean energy and efficiency research isn’t derailed by budget cuts or DOE inattention.

Republished with permission from the Natural Resources Defense Council's expert blogs.

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