Photo: AP

Foiled in his bid to slash the Department of Energy’s clean energy research programs in 2018, Trump is apparently going to try again: As reported by the Washington Post last week, a draft of the administration’s FY-2019 budget proposes cutting funding for the DOE’s Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy (EERE) programs by 72 percent.

Those are the sort of cuts that could have a chilling effect on jobs and the future of clean tech industries, from solar power to refrigerators.

The news doesn’t come as a total surprise: The budget request outlined by the Post includes cuts similar to (but generally worse) than what Trump and his ilk proposed for 2018, when they asked Congress to shrink funding for EERE programs from $2 billion to $636 million. In 2019, they’d like to see those numbers trimmed even further to $576 million, the Post reports.

Both Trump’s FY-2018 budget proposal and these preliminary FY-2019 numbers request deep cuts to advanced manufacturing (61.4 and 75 percent, respectively), solar energy technology (71.2 and 78 percent) and bioenergy technologies (74.8 and 82 percent). Both budgets call for slashing funding for electric vehicle R&D, a $307-million-a-year program.

In short: Trump’s still on the warpath as far as spending federal dollars to develop tech slated to power our future, clear up our air, and help us tackle climate change.

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“When you’re trying to cut something 70 percent, you’re not just scaling back,” Robert Cowin, director of government affairs for the Climate and Energy program at the Union of Concerned Scientists, told Earther. “You’re essentially trying to eviscerate that work.”

The Department of Energy did not return a request for comment.

As Cowin sees it, the EERE Office is important on several levels. Certain programs, like the Weatherization Assistance Program, have a direct impact on American lives today. That program, which “reduces energy costs for low-income households by increasing the energy efficiency of their homes” supports 8,500 jobs and helps increase the energy efficiency of approximately 35,000 low-income households a year, according to the DOE website. It would be zeroed out by Trump’s budget requests.

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Then there’s the longer-term, bigger picture value of all R&D taking place at DOE National Laboratories, which helps reduce the costs of technologies, improve their efficiency, build new markets, and spur private sector investment.

“This is the type of research that builds the foundation for the commercializable technologies,” Luke Bassett, associate director of domestic energy and environment policy at the Center for American Progress, told Earther. “It doesn’t necessarily produce the type of investment that you turn a profit on in a year, but the effects are also much broader in terms of societal benefits.”

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For an example of a program with potentially huge long-term benefits, look no further than the DOE’s Advanced Research Projects Agency (ARPA-E), whose projects the Trump administration proposed zeroing out in its 2018 budget request (the 2019 numbers fro ARPA-E are still TDB).

Since 2009, ARPA-E has furnished over 580 different research projects with 1.5 million in seed funding, according to the program’s website. These projects run the gamut from grid scale battery research to efforts to develop more advanced wind generators and zero-emissions refrigeration. 

In addition to resulting in more than a thousand peer-reviewed papers and dozens of spinoff companies, ARPA-E projects have attracted more than 1.8 billion in private sector follow-on funding. By providing federal support for speculative research, ARPA-E helps encourage companies to take a gamble on high-risk, potentially high-reward technologies.

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Tarak Shah, who served as Chief of Staff and Senior Advisor to the DOE’s Under Secretary for Science and Energy under former president Barack Obama, told Earther the notion that cutting back government spending on programs like this will spur private sector innovation—a common refrain among fiscal conservatives—misunderstands the government’s role when it comes to energy technologies.

“For these sorts of far-out, more than two to three years from an immediate return on investment R&D things, industry just doesn’t do it” on its own, Shah said.

But it’s not just far-out technologies where national labs play a vital role. When it comes to the more incremental technological improvements the EERE programs deal with, federal scientists work closely with industry partners to identify research gaps and improve processes. Bassett noted that the Advanced Manufacturing Office (now on Trump’s chopping block) has helped spur the growth of industries as diverse as 3D printing, which has the potential to decrease energy and material use in manufacturing, to wider bandgap semiconductors, which are expected to enable smaller, more energy efficient power electronics.

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“When you look at the reality of it, there’s a huge gap in energy research and development and innovation that the government has been helping to fill for quite some time, and we’ve all benefited,” Cowin said. He worries that if we take an attitude that DOE research isn’t important, “we really risk regressing in terms of our technological and scientific prowess. And there’s plenty of countries that would happily take the lead.”

Indeed, while the US may be leading the world on clean energy R&D today, China has dramatically scaled up its investment in these technologies. Trump’s actions, from walking back U.S. climate commitments to attempting to undercut clean energy research to slapping hefty tariffs on solar, could serve to hand China an energy market it would like nothing more than to dominate.

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“I think places like China see clean energy as a major business opportunity, and they’re investing heavily” Bob Perciasepe, President of the Center for Climate and Energy Solutions, told Earther, noting that if the world flips to clean energy and the U.S. gets left behind, China could end up supplying the rest of the world.

“That’s a simplistic statement, but we’ll be busy trying to export other types of energy,” he said. (Beautiful, clean coal, anyone?)

The saving grace is that in recent years, EERE programs have seen strong bipartisan support: After all, Obama was able to nearly double EERE’s budget during his tenure, with Republicans controlling both the House and Senate for his last two years. “There was a clear realization we weren’t spending enough,” Shah said.

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Shah said he anticipates Congress will hold the line and keep DOE funding flat in 2019. Bassett and Cowin agreed that in the past, we’ve seen a high degree of bipartisan support for energy R&D, although Cowin worries that Secretary Perry’s plan to overhaul the DOE’s internal organization structure could establish an artificial wall between basic and applied research that makes it easier to slash programs like EERE.

Shah added that it’s important to remember the president’s budget marks a starting point for negotiation. “And when that starting point is so low, it does give you pause that we’re not doing everything we can to address the worst impacts of climate change,” he said.