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Energy: More Dollars For Clean And Renewable Energy R&D

by Jeff Johnson
February 27, 2012 | A version of this story appeared in Volume 90, Issue 9

For 2013, the President has proposed a Department of Energy budget of $27.2 billion, a 3.2% increase over the 2012 appropriation. As Energy Secretary Steven Chu rolled out the proposal, he underscored familiar themes: a focus on clean and renewable energy R&D, support for domestic energy-related manufacturing, a drive to ensure U.S. leadership in the international energy technology marketplace, and the creation of more U.S. jobs.

The department seeks $10.3 billion for overall R&D funding, a 6.6% jump over last year. The biggest share would go to the Office of Science, which would get $5.0 billion, 2.4% more than in fiscal 2012. The Basic Energy Sciences program, which funds much chemical science, would get the largest funding boost, 6.6% to $1.8 billion.

Another program of key interest to chemistry is the Advanced Research Projects Agency-Energy (ARPA-E), which would get a 27.3% increase to $350 million under the proposed budget. ARPA-E supports risky, high-potential R&D projects. In less than three years, it has funded 180 projects. While Congress supports ARPA-E, the levels it has appropriated have been far below those sought by the Administration. Last year, DOE proposed a budget of $600 million for ARPA-E, but Congress gave it only $275 million.

DOE’s second-biggest energy research area is the Office of Energy Efficiency & Renewable Energy. It would get $1.9 billion in funding, a 28.6% increase from last year. Vehicle R&D technologies—such as advanced batteries, improved electric recharge capabilities, lightweight materials, and efficient internal combustion engines—would get $420 million, 24.2% more than last year. Efficiency research to support advanced building technologies would receive a 41.4% funding increase to $310 million. Funding would jump 7.3% to $310 million for solar energy R&D and 35.5% to $270 million for biomass and biorefinery R&D. The budget for wind energy R&D would remain flat at $95 million.

In presenting the 2013 budget, Chu cited wind as a DOE success story, noting that the agency will shift research focus from onshore to offshore wind energy. Onshore wind energy is now a mature technology and competitive with other new electricity sources, he said, whereas offshore wind energy is just getting started in the U.S.

Nuclear energy faces cuts in this budget. The science component would drop 16.5% to $314 million and overall funding of the Office of Nuclear Energy would be cut 10.3% to $770 million. Buried in the funds is some $60 million, Chu said, set aside for R&D to support recommendations of the Blue Ribbon Commission on America’s Nuclear Future (C&EN, Feb. 13, page 33). The funds would be used to help evaluate and consolidate radioactive waste currently stored at some 10 closed reactor sites, one of the commission’s recommendations.

Chu’s proposed cuts notwithstanding, Congress historically has looked favorably on nuclear energy research, as well as fossil energy research, and has restored funding.

For fossil energy R&D, the Administration seeks $429 million, 19.7% less than the $534 million Congress appropriated in 2012. However, DOE intends to use only $347 million of that amount. Most of the funding requested in the 2013 proposal would be used for coal-related research for power plant efficiency and carbon capture technologies.

Echoing the President, Chu stressed support for advanced manufacturing and the need for the U.S. to ramp up manufacturing efforts. He singled out a 2013 budget request for $290 million to fund the Advanced Manufacturing Office within DOE, which is a renamed and refocused version of DOE’s Industrial Technologies Program. For more than a decade, that office has been important to the chemical industry, providing guidance and promoting industrial energy efficiency.

Previous Administrations had slashed the program’s funding and discussed its elimination. In 2008, its budget was $63 million, but in 2011, Chu sought $320 million and received $116 million from Congress. This year’s proposal would more than double the office’s funding.

The 2013 budget does not include money for DOE’s controversial loan guarantee program, which has been under attack by Republicans in the House of Representatives. Chu continued to stress the importance of other federal programs to encourage private clean energy investments, such as the production tax credit to encourage investment in wind and solar energy projects. These programs, Chu said, have for the first time since 2008 put the U.S. ahead of China in private and government clean energy investments, with a $47 billion to $56 billion U.S. advantage in 2011.

When Chu presented DOE’s 2013 budget to the Senate Energy & Natural Resources Committee on Feb. 16, he emphasized “tough choices” and cuts. Many senators, however, thought the budget was too grand and the cuts too shallow.

President Obama’s budget, committee ranking minority member Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska) said, “largely ignores the greatest threat to our economy—the more than $15 trillion debt.”

She criticized Chu’s support for tax credits for new energy technologies and advanced manufacturing and efficiency programs. But she opposed efforts to remove some $4 billion in yearly tax breaks for oil and gas companies, reductions Chu had underscored in his testimony.

The conflicting themes continued throughout the three hours senators peppered Chu with questions. They criticized Chu for offering loans and support to clean energy companies, but equally blasted him for not offering loans, grants, and research support for industries in their particular states. The hypocrisy was bipartisan.

DOE’s proposal is unlikely to survive in its current form in a deeply divided Congress during a volatile election year. In 2012, Chu sought $29.5 billion and wound up with $3 billion less.


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