The Trump administration is aiming a half-billion-dollar cut at the main U.S. hub for renewable energy research — 25 percent of the agency’s budget, and that’s just for the final five months of this federal fiscal year.
Even deeper cuts are expected to be sought for 2018 — a possibility that has alarmed researchers in clean energy and even some Republicans in Congress.
The Office of Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy, or EERE, is a $2 billion branch of the Department of Energy. It is credited with helping to drive the rapid expansion of rooftop solar panels, electric vehicle batteries, LED lighting and more.
The cuts have yet to be approved by Congress, but they remain a clear signal of administration priorities.
The Trump “skinny” budget proposal for the 2018 fiscal year released earlier this month suggested that intended cuts to EERE could run in the order of $1 billion, according to estimates by some office staffers and knowledgeable observers.
Several staffers said cuts of that magnitude would damage U.S. research and technological competitiveness. They suggested much of the brunt of the cuts could fall on the National Renewable Energy Laboratory at Golden, Colo., the country’s leading clean energy research facility.
“These are individuals we have in labs throughout the country, and when our funding gets cut, those are postdocs and graduate students and researchers that are gone,” said one EERE employee, who, like another in this article, spoke on the condition of anonymity because they were not cleared to speak on the record and feared possible retribution for doing so. “They’re doing the research. And they won’t have jobs. And we won’t be competitive.”
Virtually all of the lab’s federal funding comes from the Department of Energy’s Office of Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy — $273 million out of its total federal budget of $292 million in 2016.
“I think overall I would argue that the whole scientific community is a little bit concerned what the direction and what the focus is of this budget and how much it impacts science as a whole,” said Martin Keller, the NREL director.
An official at the White House Office of Management and Budget, who was not authorized to speak for attribution, responded to a query about EERE’s intended fate in 2018 by stating that “the fuller budget in mid-May will contain greater detail.”
“The budget blueprint represents the administration’s top level proposed funding levels. The final proposed FY 2018 budget numbers will become available in May. The budget will then be sent to Congress for review and debate, at which time we will be able to provide more details,” added a DOE spokesperson, who was also not authorized to speak for attribution.
Already, Colorado’s leaders in Congress are pledging to defend their state’s clean energy laboratory.
“There’s no question that we cannot continue on the same trajectory and must identify spending priorities to more efficiently and effectively operate the federal government; however, cutting the research and development done at NREL, where for every $1 of taxpayer money invested through the lab results in $5 of private investment, is not the answer,” said Sen. Cory Gardner (R-Colo.) in a statement to The Washington Post. “Congress ultimately controls the power of the purse and I remain committed to putting Colorado interests first.”
The turnabout at EERE is dramatic. During the Obama administration, EERE held a major role in the administration’s clean energy agenda. Obama’s final budget request would have pushed its funding up to nearly $2.9 billion.
From research on new forms of hydropower to wind energy, the office conducts and funds science designed to save energy or promote lower carbon energy. It regularly promulgates new product-specific energy efficiency standards that save consumers money.
EERE played a significant role in driving down the price of solar panels during the Obama administration. NREL research, funded under the stimulus program and other measures, helped contribute to a 74 percent cost decline for utility-scale solar from 2010 to 2016.
“While it is difficult to say quantitatively how much of the cost reduction in photovoltaics modules have come from these programs in particular, all evidence suggests they have been critical,” said Jessika Trancik, an MIT researcher who studies clean energy policies and systems, referring to EERE and NREL.
In the 1990s, the NREL helped pioneer the cadmium telluride solar technology that was eventually commercialized by First Solar, now a $3 billion company.
President Trump’s energy policy is focused on domestic fossil fuels with no mention of wind, solar, or renewables.
His proposed budget would cut previously uncontroversial energy efficiency programs, like the EPA’s Energy Star and the Weatherization Assistance Program (which EERE operates), and discard entirely innovative clean energy research programs like the Advanced Research Projects Agency-Energy, or ARPA-E, also part of the Energy Department.
Like ARPA-E, EERE has been targeted by the conservative Heritage Foundation, which inspired Trump’s budget plan, and which charges that rather than basic research funding, the program supports “outright commercialization.”
The Trump 2018 budget similarly argues that offices like EERE need to be “focuse[d]” on “limited, early-stage applied energy research and development activities where the Federal role is stronger.”
But there is strong disagreement with Heritage’s philosophy about government-funded research. “Early stage applied research is a classic fall back of Republican administrations. It is important work but misses the point of what it takes to get a good idea from lab to market,” said David Friedman, who was the acting assistant director of EERE under Obama.
Friedman explained that EERE does far more than basic research on, say, harnessing solar energy with ever greater efficiency. It funds demonstrations of technologies and even ways of overcoming market barriers to their introduction.
Venkatesh Narayanamurti, a Harvard Kennedy School professor of science and technology policy, also critiques what he calls “this fallacious argument that government should not be in technology.” He argues it is often too risky for private sector energy companies to invest in basic research, and in many cases also in the long process toward commercialization — dubbed a “valley of death.”
“Science and technology feed off of each other,” Narayanamurti said. “You cannot divide them.”
One major solar company, SunPower, told The Post that it had snapped up start-ups supported by the Energy Department and EERE, including SolarBridge Technologies, which received $3.3 million in grants from the EERE SunShot Initiative.
“Energy Department programs have helped to spur innovation and technology R&D, acting as a catalyst to the growth of many U.S. companies,” said SunPower chief executive Tom Werner.
The proposed cuts to the research hub are part of a broader rollback of Obama’s climate actions by the Trump administration.
Before the inauguration, a Trump transition questionnaire circulated to the Energy Department asked for the names of employees involved in meetings related to climate change — raising fears about politicization of the agency. Other questions included, “Which programs within DOE are essential to meeting the goals of President Obama’s Climate Action Plan?”
“If you think climate change is not important, then the importance of what we do goes way way down,” one EERE staffer said.
The American Association for the Advancement of Science has estimated that EERE and several other applied energy research agencies would stand to be cut by more than 45 percent in the 2018 budget.