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New Report: Congress Should Update DOE Clean Energy Programs

NRDC released a report November 12th that lays out our recommendations to update and expand the U.S. Department of Energy’s (DOE’s) clean energy innovation programs to more effectively address climate change, especially given that congressional direction to DOE hasn’t been updated in almost 15 years. The agency needs an increase in funding, a modernized structure, and updated innovation strategies to more effectively address the climate crisis.

As the nation’s largest funder of clean energy research, development, and demonstration, DOE will be an essential player in any comprehensive federal climate plan. The agency’s programs helped shepherd remarkable growth in clean energy in the last decade, and enormous potential remains for future benefits, as we note in Transforming the U.S. Department of Energy in Response to the Climate Crisis: Legislative Authorizing Principles for Clean Energy Innovation.

However, as the report also shows, DOE is operating with an outdated structure and focus, with insufficient funding levels and a constrained set of tools to fix the problem. The agency takes its long-term direction and authority from Congress in the form of periodic authorization legislation. These authorizations set DOE’s mission and focus and give the agency tools to meet its mission.  

Congress should upgrade the authorizations for DOE’s clean energy programs and put the nation’s top innovators to work solving the world’s most pressing climate and energy challenges. NRDC’s report recommends specific ways for Congress to do so.

And to fully address the climate crisis, Congress cannot stop with DOE programs. The recommendations in NRDC’s report must be part of a larger suite of federal climate policies, including clean energy deployment incentives, pollution standards to require that we meet our emissions reduction goals, and targeted investments and requirements to ensure that the transition is just and equitable. There is no silver bullet. Neither a pollution standard nor public funding for clean energy—nor any other single policy—will do the job alone, but DOE innovation programs are a crucial piece of the puzzle that will bring enormous benefit to the American people and their future.

NREL

Why it’s important

While the federal government has been moving backward on climate action during the Trump administration, DOE clean energy programs have been quietly chipping away at the problem.

DOE’s programs have been among the most successful federal policy tools to avoid climate-warming emissions over the last decade. The agency’s programs have helped commercialize technologies that are now linchpins of the clean energy economy—and there’s potential and an urgent need to do far more. DOE investments, paired with federal deployment incentives and state policies, have slashed the costs of wind turbines, large solar farms, electric vehicle batteries, and highly efficient LED bulbs all by more than 70 percent in the past 10 years.

The agency has a hand in achieving these cost reductions through its applied energy offices, which include the agency’s wind, solar, and energy efficiency programs, among others. The applied energy offices channel federal dollars into national labs, universities, and businesses to research, develop, and demonstrate the clean energy technologies necessary to build a lower-emissions, safer, affordable, and reliable energy system. These investments in our nation’s intellectual capital create and advance solutions that benefit everyday Americans in their homes and businesses across the country.

In fact, $12 billion in taxpayer investment in DOE’s energy efficiency, sustainable transportation, and renewable energy programs has yielded $388 billion in net economic benefits to the American people, according to third-party evaluations of the agency. That’s $33 out for every $1 in.

We need to keep these benefits coming—and take advantage of even greater untapped potential. Doing so requires Congress to update its authorization of DOE’s clean energy programs.

DOE programs need an update

We still have a long way to go to curb carbon emissions and address the climate crisis. DOE is an essential element, but in its current state, it is not properly equipped to be meet the climate crisis head on.

NRDC’s report recommends key changes that Congress should make to DOE to increase its effectiveness and bring greater benefits to the American people, including:

  • At least double clean energy research and development funding
  • Catalyze and accelerate adoption of clean energy solutions by significantly increasing funding for demonstration and deployment programs
  • Focus and expand funding to align with distribution of U.S. greenhouse gas emissions, i.e. the transportation sector, which is the largest emitter, should receive a commensurate share of innovation funding
  • Prioritize solutions that address inequities in the energy system and increase clean energy adoption in low-income and frontline communities, which are disproportionately affected by climate change and likely to face higher energy costs relative to their income
  • Update the technology priorities for the applied energy offices to align with the current challenges and opportunities

Congress is moving, yet gaps remain

Congress has started considering a few bills that would address some of the issues identified in our report. A few examples include:

  • H.R. 3597/S. 2668, the Solar Energy Technology Research and Development Act of 2019, led by Reps. McAdams (D-UT) and Fortenberry (R-NE) and Sen. Sinema (D-AZ), would update and expand the solar program to focus on the most relevant challenges and opportunities, including integration of solar resources with the grid, reducing soft costs, and improving scalable manufacturing of solar panels.
  • H.R. 3609/S. 2660, the Wind Energy Research and Development Act of 2019, led by Reps. Tonko (D-NY) and Fortenberry and Sens. Collins (R-ME) and Smith (D-MN), would expand the wind office to focus on enabling taller wind turbines, cutting the cost of offshore wind, and improving strategies to limit impact to wildlife.
  • H.R. 3978/S. 2300, the Clean Industrial Technologies Act of 2019, led by a bipartisan group of legislators including Reps. Casten (D-IL) and Bernice Johnson (D-TX) and Sens. Whitehouse (D-RI), Capito (R-WV), and Manchin (D-WV), would create a new program to improve and demonstrate technologies to decarbonize heavy industry.
  • S. 1602, the Better Energy Storage Technology Act of 2019, which incorporates language from bills written by Sens. Collins, Smith, Klobuchar (D-MN), Wyden (D-OR), and King (I-ME), would direct DOE to coordinate energy storage innovation across the agency and create new programs to demonstrate new storage technologies and provide technical assistance to municipalities to deploy storage resources.

If passed, such bills would be a great start to a much-needed update. However, notable gaps remain. First, most of the agency-wide updates—rebalancing of priorities, updating the mission, a focus on equity and workforce development, and more—are missing from the conversation. Second, key technology areas, such as building and transportation decarbonization, do not have fully developed authorizing bills. 

The climate crisis is upon us; we urgently need federal leaders to do something to address it. Moving a comprehensive set of innovation authorizing bills is an immediate bipartisan action that will set the stage for further climate and clean energy policies.

NRDC Expert Blog by Arjun Krishnaswami

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

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