Should DOE get out of the research business?
The budget outline that President Trump released yesterday proposed a historic scaling-back of research and development by the Department of Energy, upending decades of bipartisan consensus on the department’s mission.
Trump thinks that the federal government is meddling in the market and that it should limit itself to basic research and shift the billions of dollars it spends on applied research and commercialization to private industry.
Meanwhile, many entrepreneurs who receive DOE research funding see themselves as helping the United States gain a competitive edge in a global energy sector that is being transformed by new technology. That level of private money, they say, simply doesn’t exist.
“This is the worst time in history to do this, and it will lead to America losing in the next 10 years,” said Saul Griffith, founder of Otherlab, a private California research facility that gets half of its funding from DOE. “Germany and China will come marching in.”
On the other side are conservative think tanks like the Heritage Foundation, which have great sway in forming the Trump administration’s views on energy matters (Greenwire, Jan. 27).
“There is not a lot of need for the federal government to be involved in improving solar panels,” said Katie Tubb, an energy and environmental policy analyst for the Heritage Foundation.
“When the federal government does back a technology, there are a dozen other technologies or companies they aren’t funding. One of those could actually serve the needs of the market better,” she added.
DOE would see its budget cut 5.6 percent under the plan, but the ax would go much deeper in research. That’s because the parts of the department that modernize the nuclear weapons arsenal and clean up nuclear waste would see an increase of 11.3 percent, while everything else would be cut 17.9 percent.
The slimmed-down $28 billion budget asks Energy Secretary Rick Perry to find places to downsize at the Office of Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy (EERE), Office of Nuclear Energy, and Office of Electricity Delivery and Energy Reliability.
These offices oversee a great deal of the funding for the nation’s 17 national laboratories, which includes R&D for all sorts of energy, from smart grid and nuclear power to solar and oil drilling.
Trump’s budget proposal specifically eliminates three programs that have been used to foster low-carbon energy: the Advanced Research Projects Agency-Energy, the Innovative Technology Loan Guarantee Program and the Advanced Technology Vehicle Manufacturing loan program, all of which were created under Republican President George W. Bush and expanded under President Obama.
The U.S. energy-industrial complex has been growing for decades, and DOE labs and joint public-private projects have been crucial in developing industries from nuclear energy to hydraulic fracturing.
More recently, Obama used those same mechanisms, along with new ones, to nurture a host of new energy technologies like solar, wind, electric cars and energy storage that reduce carbon emissions and are only beginning to find their place in the energy mix.