The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

The U.S. needs a solar energy revolution. But it’s laying off solar energy researchers

SolarCity Corp. employees install solar panels on the roof of a home in Kendall Park, N.J. Photographer: Michael Nagle/Bloomberg

On Monday, Oct. 5, Stuart Farrell had planned to take the morning off from his job as a researcher at the National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL) in Golden, Colo., after being awake all night taking care of his sick 2-year-old son. But at 10:30 a.m., he received a call asking him to come in for an 11:30 meeting.

“I woke up, got myself as awake as possible, and came into work,” Farrell said. “My manager and I went to a meeting with the person above him, and they told me that I was let go. And I had the rest of that day to pack up my stuff and leave.”

Farrell, who had worked in solar energy research at the laboratory for two and a half years, was one of 15 solar research staff members laid off that day due to federal funding cuts, according to NREL public affairs manager George Douglas. And another 40 to 60 staff members are expected to be lost through a voluntary separation program that the lab will initiate on Oct. 12.

Almost all of the researchers already laid off were involved in “next generation,” or long-term, solar research, Douglas said. Farrell’s work, for instance, involved research on improving the efficiency of cadmium telluride solar cells.

“We made every effort to try to shore up the funding,” Douglas said. “But it painfully became apparent about a month ago that there wasn’t going to be enough money to keep this program here at the lab.”

It’s the latest sign of a trend that experts say is undermining U.S. efforts to promote alternative energy: Federal funding for solar energy research has declined steadily over the past several years, despite emphasis from the Obama administration on continued investment in research and development of clean energy technologies. These cuts have affected the federal solar program at large, not just solar research at NREL.

At the National Clean Energy Summit in Las Vegas in August, President Obama praised the expansion of solar energy in the U.S. and remarked, “Now is not the time to insist on massive cuts to the investments in [research and development] that help drive our economy, including the hundreds of millions of dollars in cuts that many Republicans want to take from these successful, job-creating clean energy programs.”

A trend towards declining solar funding. Yet federal appropriations for solar energy research, which are negotiated and approved by Congress along with funding for all other federal activities, seem to decline a little more every year. These reductions have manifested themselves in the form of steady cuts to the Department of Energy’s Solar Energy Technologies Office (SETO), which is the lead U.S. agency funding solar research, including solar research at NREL, and runs the SunShot Initiative, a set of goals seeking to make solar energy competitive with other forms of electricity by the year 2020.

For fiscal year 2012, appropriations for SETO, which come through the funding for the Department of Energy, were nearly $289 million. In 2013, solar received $269 million. This number shrank to $257 million in 2014 and $233 million in 2015 — a decline of approximately 19 percent since 2012. A person involved with federal solar research noted that appropriations for 2016 are expected to be around $220 million, although the budget has not yet been finalized by Congress. And while NREL itself has had a “flat budget” for the past several years, according to Douglas, the part of its funding allocated for solar research has declined, consistent with the overall cuts to the federal solar budget.

Some outside researchers bemoan what is happening to the office.

“NREL is actually one of the smallest of the national laboratories, and I think it’s been one that has had one of the largest impacts of any of the national laboratories,” said Al Compaan, president and CTO of Lucintech, a company involved in the development of photovoltaic modules. “I’m particularly pained to see any further cuts in funding [to NREL].” For instance, support from NREL was integral to the success of photovoltaic manufacturer First Solar, which Compaan referred to as “one of the bright shining stars in the success of federal government support for solar energy.”

These reductions hardly seem to be what the administration wants — they have occurred despite significantly higher budget requests each year from the White House. For fiscal year 2015, the administration requested more than $282 million for the Solar Energy Technologies Office, and the request for 2016 is more than $336 million.

“By supporting technologies like thin film solar PV panels, the SunShot Initiative and the Department’s National Laboratories, including the National Renewable Energy Laboratory, have helped to make solar energy more affordable and accessible for American families and businesses,” said a spokesperson from the Department of Energy in a statement to The Post. “Investment in our labs and energy R&D are vital to continue to bring down the cost of solar energy and bolster America’s competitive advantage in clean energy.”

Yet the budget appropriations have fallen short of the requests over the past few years, and applied research, particularly on long-term, forward-looking technologies like the project Farrell was involved with at NREL, has been one of the areas to suffer. The reasons for the funding cuts could be tied to budget sequestration, or limits on the size of the federal budget, which can force spending cuts in certain areas in order to bring the total budget down.

A shift towards reducing ‘soft’ costs. And it’s not just overall budget cuts that are affecting long-term solar research projects in the U.S. It’s also a change in the way that solar funding is being applied. More and more of the remaining funds are being directed into short-term cost reduction efforts, rather than the kinds of next generation research that have been prioritized in the past.

“What’s happening now to the solar program in the U.S. is that it’s made a dramatic change in what it wants to accomplish,” said Robert Birkmire, director of the Institute of Energy Conversion at the University of Delaware. Currently, the Department of Energy’s major focus has moved to the SunShot Initiative, which aims to drive solar energy costs down over a short period of time. That means that funding, even as it declines overall from one year to the next, is being funneled more and more into meeting the initiative’s goals.

“The guidance [from the Department of Energy] has been to work toward these SunShot goals, and so that’s where the money’s going to float to,” Douglas said. “The researchers that have been working in the longer-term programs have been getting less and less funding.”

Instead, Birkmire noted, “their analysis in this demonstrates that, really, the biggest bang for their buck is probably reducing what they call soft costs.” These are costs associated with solar installations that don’t have to do with the actual price of the hardware — for example, costs associated with acquiring permits for solar installations or conducting inspections, as well as costs lost to the supply chain. Reducing these costs has become a majority priority within the Energy Department as a way of meeting the SunShot Initiative’s goals, as SETO notes that they can account for more than 50 percent of solar systems’ costs.

And, in fact, despite overall declines in federal solar funding, allocations for soft cost reduction rose from $29.6 million in 2013 to approximately $42.6 million in 2014. In 2015, funding dipped to $40.7 million, although the budget request for 2016 includes an allocation of $67.3 million for soft cost reduction. In this way, solar technology research is being hit by a double whammy — overall budget cuts and changes in the way the remaining funds are being allocated.

Despite these reductions, solar energy itself has continued to expand and contribute to decarbonization in the U.S., at least partly thanks to the importation of solar modules from other nations, particularly China. The U.S. market share in photovoltaic manufacturing has dropped significantly since the late 90s, and China has become the major source of module shipments over the past five years.

Questions about scientific competitiveness. According to a 2015 report from the Congressional Research Service, China produced about two-thirds of the world’s solar modules in 2013, most of which were exported. And the same report notes, “[U.S.] imports of solar cells and panels nearly tripled from 2009, reaching $3.6 billion in 2013,” most of which came from Asia. In contrast, the U.S. exported $350 million in photovoltaics to the world in 2013.

So while the U.S. does continue to embrace solar as an alternative energy source, its role in international development and manufacturing of photovoltaics may be shrinking. “It’s sad to see that manufacturing element [moving offshore], but we live in a reality of a global marketplace,” Compaan said. And Birkmire added, “The real major goal is that you want to reduce the carbon footprint. Where you get the product from… I can argue it both ways.”

But Compaan also cautioned that continued reductions in research and development funding could undermine U.S. capabilities when it comes to training a new workforce for continued research in the “photovoltaic module area,” where innovation may become increasingly valuable in the coming years.

And Farrell added that by laying off research staff so suddenly at NREL — he says he had no idea the layoffs were coming until he was let go — the laboratory did not leave any time for the outgoing scientists to train other staff members to take over their positions.

“We’re all scientists, we love our job, we love the work that we’re doing, and if they were to tell us that we were going to be gone in two months or one month, we could train other people,” Farrell said, adding that he left behind a “million-dollar piece of equipment” that he doesn’t believe anyone else in the lab knows how to use. “As such, I believe that NREL is going to take at least three months to get back to their current expertise. And that’s assuming that they have enough people to run all the projects they’re working on,” he said.

“As solar becomes more and more competitive, even without subsidies or without incentives, the need for a trained work force gets more and more urgent,” said Compaan, from Lucintech. “This lack of funding is really impacting our ability to follow through on commitments when it comes to reducing carbon emissions and taking the steps to mitigate climate change.”