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Energy: Renewable Energy Set For Boost

by Jeff Johnson
April 22, 2013 | A version of this story appeared in Volume 91, Issue 16

Credit: Department of Energy
A table shows that a big jump is proposed for renewables, efficiency in the Department of Energy’s research budget.
Credit: Department of Energy

Chemists and other scientists working on energy efficiency and renewable energy projects will be big winners if the Obama Administration’s proposal for fiscal 2014 survives congressional scrutiny. Maintaining the funding levels proposed by the Department of Energy, however, is likely to be tough when legislation comes before this highly partisan, cash-strapped Congress. In fact, many of the research areas earmarked for significant increases in the 2014 budget are nearly identical to ones proposed in the 2013 appropriation but rejected by Congress.

That aside, DOE R&D support is strong in the President’s 2014 proposal, receiving a 13.2% jump to $10.7 billion, compared with 2012 levels. Looking at the entire budget, the request for DOE is an 8.0% increase to $28.4 billion, compared with 2012.

The recipient of the largest single block of R&D funds would be the Office of Science. The office would receive $5.2 billion, nearly half the department’s total energy-related R&D funding. That level would mark an increase of 4.4% compared with 2012. Basic Energy Sciences would get the largest share, $1.9 billion, for a 13.2% increase. Department officials and background material provide no breakdown of where the increased funds would go, but in a budget briefing, officials emphasized the importance of DOE’s R&D hubs and the “energy frontier research centers” at various universities and labs.

The greatest R&D program increases are in the Office of Energy Efficiency & Renewable Energy. Overall, the office would receive a $1 billion jump from 2012 to $2.8 billion. The R&D portion of the office’s budget would grow by $800 million to $2.2 billion in 2014. The heavy clean-energy focus reflects the experience of David T. Danielson, who now manages the office and formerly was a key program director of the Advanced Research Projects Agency-Energy (ARPA-E).

The office’s largest increase was a 79.1% jump to $575 million for vehicle technology R&D. The vehicle program’s goal, DOE says, is to reduce petroleum use, greenhouse gas emissions, and vehicle operating costs. Research areas include transportation electrification, lightweight materials, advanced combustion engines, nonpetroleum fuels, and new lubricant technologies.

Another facet of the vehicle research program is the EV (Electric Vehicles) Everywhere initiative that aims to develop by 2020 technologies to make electric-powered vehicles as affordable and convenient as gasoline-powered vehicles, “bringing EVs to the average American family,” according to DOE. The initiative focuses on battery technologies and manufacturing processes, power electronics, and electric motors.

Other clean energy areas proposed for significant increases compared with 2012 are building technology research, with a 39.7% increase to $300 million, and solar, with a 25.2% boost to $356 million. Also, wind-related R&D would receive a large boost, 56.8%, to $144 million for 2014.

For solar, DOE’s goal is to make it competitive with other electricity sources, without subsidies, by 2020, explained Deputy Energy Secretary Daniel B. Poneman. Poneman directed the budget briefing, representing DOE because the department currently has no confirmed energy secretary.

Poneman strongly defended the increases for renewables, saying this was “not the time to take our foot off the accelerator,” underscoring the Administration’s view that these technologies are critical to jobs and a growing economy.

“The U.S. faces one of the greatest challenges ahead, the opportunity to lead the global clean energy race,” Poneman said. “We must continue to out-innovate, out-educate, and out-build the rest of the world to meet this challenge.”

To that end, the President’s proposed budget also includes $365 million for a new Advanced Manufacturing Office within DOE to develop new materials and innovative and energy-efficient manufacturing processes. It is part of a $2.9 billion federal R&D program that is being led by the National Institute of Standards & Technology and involves a half-dozen agencies, as well as industries and universities.

DOE’s ARPA-E program gets a 36.4% increase over its 2012 level under the President’s request. This would give the program $345 million in R&D funds in 2014. ARPA-E supports transformative energy discoveries, helping bring them to commercialization. For 2014, its funding would be split between transportation and stationary power systems technologies.

But the budget appears less kind to fossil fuels. The Administration proposes cutting coal-related R&D by 23.0% to $276 million. Those funds are set aside for carbon capture and sequestration research. Fossil fuels, agency officials note, are “mature” technologies with less need for government support. The Obama budget eliminates $4 billion in annual “unwarranted and unnecessary” subsidies to the oil, gas, and coal industries.

Concerning nuclear energy research, DOE plans to spend $135 million to support development of new reactor designs, including small modular reactors, and fuel-cycle technologies, a 25.9% reduction from 2012. The budget would also provide $165 million for fuel-cycle R&D, part of which would support activities to design a new waste management system to replace the Yucca Mountain radioactive waste repository. In background documents, DOE estimated development of the waste management program would draw about $5.6 billion over 10 years beginning in 2014.

Despite DOE’s focus on energy-related research, $17.7 billion—or more than half the agency’s overall budget—supports nuclear weapons under the President’s request. About $11.6 billion of this funding is tagged to maintain and refurbish the nation’s nuclear weapons stockpile and another $6.1 billion is earmarked to clean up and isolate radioactive and hazardous waste at former weapons sites.

Some $2.1 billion of the nuclear weapons and nonproliferation budget is R&D related, a small increase over 2012. This funding is directed to nuclear weapon reliability.

Although Poneman was upbeat in his assessment of the budget’s goals and its transformative potential, he noted that funding will be difficult in this “tough, austere budget climate.”


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