By Chris Mooney
May 19, 2017 - The Trump administration is expected to propose massive cuts to federal government research on wind and solar energy next week, according to current and former Energy Department officials familiar with budget discussions.
The department’s Office of Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy, which funds research on advanced vehicles as well as other aspects of clean energy, would face a roughly 70 percent cut in 2018, carving about $1.45 billion from its $2.09 billion 2017 budget.
These planned deep cuts were first reported by Axios, which obtained an Energy Department budget document. Two officials reached by The Washington Post, one currently with the department and one a former employee knowledgeable about budget discussions, cited numbers very similar or, in some cases, identical to those in that report.
It was unclear whether these were the final budget figures, which are expected to be released next week.
Shaylyn Hynes, a spokeswoman for the Energy Department, declined to comment on the budget numbers, because they have not yet been made public.
But she said Energy Secretary Rick Perry “will lead the Department of Energy in the same way he led Texas, focusing on carrying out our core agency functions efficiently and effectively while also being fiscally responsible and respecting the American taxpayer. The Department looks forward to working with Congress as the budget process continues.”
The proposed cuts, if enacted, would reverberate dramatically at the National Renewable Energy Laboratory in Golden, Colorado, which has a $292 million federal budget and 2,200 employees. This research center - the incubator for the solar cell technology used by the U.S. firm First Solar - is highly dependent on research money from Office of Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy.
The consequences of the proposed cuts could be wide ranging, potentially undermining the office’s SunShot Initiative, which has worked to drive down the costs of large-scale solar energy, which now runs about 7 cents per kilowatt hour. A goal of reaching 3 cents per kilowatt hour for large-scale solar electricity had been set for 2030.
The cuts are far from becoming a reality. In recent budget negotiations, Congress funded Energy Department programs roughly on par with 2016 levels, rather than follow a Trump administration proposal to slash them deeply in the current fiscal year.
Still, Josh Freed, vice president for the Clean Energy Program at Third Way, a public-policy think tank in Washington, said the proposals were “extremely troubling.”
“The proposal from the White House, particularly on the clean-energy innovation side, is waving a white flag,” he said. “And it sets a tone for negotiations with Congress of having to restore funds at the very time we need to be increasing the budgets for energy innovation to drive growth.”
The numbers are broadly consistent with those in the Trump administration’s “skinny budget,” released in March, which proposed a combined total of “approximately” $2 billion in cuts from EERE, the Fossil Energy Research and Development program, and two other offices. The total budget for the four programs was about $4 billion, so this would have meant cutting them collectively in half.
According to Axios, the Fossil Energy Research and Development program, which conducts research on carbon capture and storage, would face a 55 percent cut and be funded at $280 million in 2018, far lower than the 2017 funding level of $618 million. That’s even though carbon capture and storage, which often goes by the name “clean coal,” has been a major Trump administration priority.
One Energy Department official also confirmed this cut to The Post.
Cuts to research funding for “clean coal” would appear to undermine a key administration priority - and fly in the face of what the coal industry wants. Perry recently attended a ribbon-cutting for the U.S.’s first functioning clean-coal plant in Texas.
“The Obama administration made the biggest investment in clean-coal technology in history,” Ali Zaidi, a former Obama administration Office of Management and Budget official who is now at Stanford University, said in an email. “In contrast: This budget throws tacks in the road for coal; it’ll pump the brakes on much-needed carbon-capture technology research. Why?”