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Hill climate fever has DOE funding implications (March 11, 2019)

E&E News
Jeremy Dillon
March 11, 2019

As the Trump administration readies to publish its fiscal 2020 budget request, which is sure to propose cutting Department of Energy research and development, a growing Capitol Hill consensus is emerging about the importance of those programs in the fight to curb climate-warming emissions.

Combined with the general climate momentum caused by the Green New Deal, funding for DOE research could see dramatic boosts in the upcoming appropriations cycle, despite White House attempts to diminish the government's role in clean energy.

"My focus on dealing with climate change and clean energy is to double funding for energy research, and we have been heading toward that goal the last few years," said Sen. Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.), chairman of the Appropriations Energy and Water Development Subcommittee.

Research at the Office of Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy as well as the Advanced Research Projects Agency-Energy (ARPA-E) may prove to be the biggest winners, mainly because they represent one of the few areas of common ground between Republicans' innovation agenda and the progressive Green New Deal.

And as Republicans look to avoid heavy-handed mandates, like a transition to 100 percent clean energy in the electric and transportation sectors within a decade, the appropriations process may offer a route for both parties to show their seriousness about addressing climate change.

"I'll take any boost we can get for ARPA-E," Alexander said. "I think [climate] will focus Republican members of Congress more on technology, and ARPA-E, like [the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency], which it's modeled after, is the best example of that."

ARPA-E, originally established by congressional direction in 2007, looks to fund next-generation innovation projects deemed too risky for private-sector investment. The program's successes include some 136 projects that have garnered more than $2.6 billion in private-sector funding after the government's initial funding.

The Trump administration has looked to end the program in its past two budget requests, but Congress has rebuked those attempts by providing record funding for ARPA-E in those two years.

The popularity of the program has some House Democrats, like those on the House Science, Space and Technology Committee, looking to boost the funding from $366 million in fiscal 2019 up to nearly $1 billion in the coming years (Energywire, Feb. 27).

"I'd like to see more than that get done, like I would like to see a carbon fee get done this Congress," Rep. Dan Lipinski (D-Ill.), a moderate Democrat in the 27-member Blue Dog Coalition, told E&E News.

"We'll keep fighting for it, but I have to be realistic that perhaps the best thing we will be able to get done this year is to increase ARPA-E funding so we can help to make that breakthrough in new, clean, green technology."

Talk of significantly boosting ARPA-E has also been at the forefront with some of the initial backers of the Green New Deal.

New Consensus, one of the groups that helped craft the underlying Green New Deal resolution text, listed ARPA-E research and funding as a key area needed to further the country's climate change efforts (Greenwire, Nov. 27, 2018).

In fact, the resolution includes a bullet point that calls for "making public investments in the research and development of new clean and renewable energy technologies and industries."

The effort to increase those programs' funding could also see a boost from the House Select Committee on the Climate Crisis, its new chairwoman told E&E News.

"I hope so," Rep. Kathy Castor (D-Fla.) said. "If you look at the charge of the select committee, we are to make reports to various standing committees, so we intend to do that for the appropriations."

When it comes to EERE, lawmakers gave it $2.3 billion in fiscal 2019 despite the Trump administration proposing more than $1 billion in cuts.

Significant research and development increases may stem from the transition from Republicans to Democrats controlling the House, top appropriator Rep. Mike Simpson (R-Idaho) said.

"I expected it to be plussed up in some arenas that are more important to the Democrats that are their higher priorities," Simpson told E&E. "That's what happens when you have a change. That's what elections do."

"I think you'll see those programs plussed up," he added. "But we aren't going to go out and try to replace all the gasoline engines in 10 years or something like that."

Rep. Marcy Kaptur (D-Ohio), the chairwoman of the Energy and Water Development spending panel, has already hinted at her interest in beefing up DOE's weatherization program, an area that sends state grants for low-income efficiency improvement projects (E&E Daily, Feb. 14).

With research projects into battery storage and wind and solar deployment, EERE would also be at the center of the innovation push by some members to make clean energy more affordable and accessible.

The Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee held a hearing last week on the electric sector's progress in addressing climate change. The consensus was that government research has played and will play an integral role in that transition to cleaner power generation (E&E Daily, March 6).

"It's certainly something we will have conversations with [Alexander] about, but I think it's something that needs to continue, and as a member of the full Appropriations Committee and on that subcommittee, it's something I will continue to push," ENR Chairwoman Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska) said after the hearing.