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