Dec 18, 2019 - Politics & Policy

Despite Trump, Congress boosts clean energy funding

Congress is set to pass a budget doubling down on a years-long trend of increasing clean-energy funding, despite President Trump's repeated attempts to cut spending.

Driving the news: The spending bill the House passed on Tuesday would increase energy research spending nearly 14% compared to this year’s levels and more than 50% compared to 2014.

Why it matters: Federal research and development is a key part of scaling up and making affordable technologies needed to cut greenhouse gas emissions, such as advanced nuclear power and new innovations with solar and wind energy.

The big picture: Democrats, most environmentalists and more and more companies are calling for sweeping government policies, such as prices on carbon dioxide emissions or mandates requiring 100% carbon-free energy. But as debate on those fronts stalls over deep partisan divides, lawmakers — led by Republicans in recent years — have agreed on ramping up research spending.

What they’re saying: The ClearPath Foundation, a conservative clean-energy nonprofit that put together the below budget numbers for Axios, maintains that those big policies aren’t politically feasible. That’s a position shared by many congressional Republicans who are worried about higher energy prices and blowback from far-right advocacy groups.

  • “We think the route is to make clean energy cheaper, not traditional energy more expensive,” said Rich Powell, ClearPath’s executive director.
Data: Congressional Record via ClearPath Foundation; Chart: Axios Visuals

By the numbers: The accompanying chart shows how five key areas within the Energy Department focusing on energy research saw increases since fiscal year 2014, according to federal data compiled by ClearPath.

  • The fiscal year 2020 budget includes a total of $5.5 billion for these areas. This excludes the office of science, which has a far larger budget than these others, but isn’t necessarily focused on energy innovation.
  • Combined, these five areas saw an increase of 51%, or $1.86 billion, between fiscal years 2014 and 2020.
  • Energy storage technology, within the electricity office, saw the biggest percent increase, but has the smallest budget ($56 million in the latest budget). This chart includes just energy storage, given the overall electricity office has a broader focus and could include the Energy Department’s failed efforts in 2017 to bail out economically struggling coal and nuclear plants.
  • From an absolute numbers perspective, the biggest budgets are for the offices of Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy ($2.79 billion in fiscal year 2020) and Nuclear Energy ($1.5 billion).

Flashback: Congress has passed these increases despite the Trump administration's budget proposals that regularly suggest slashing spending — and sometimes eliminate certain energy research projects altogether.

Yes, but: R&D spending is just one part of a policy agenda pushing clean energy. In other areas, Congress was less supportive. Lawmakers are unlikely to extend several tax incentives for certain technologies, including storage and solar.

What we’re watching: Democratic presidential candidates are calling for far greater federal funding in clean energy, which will largely mean the Energy Department. Joe Biden’s climate plan, for example, includes an estimated $40 billion a year in such investments.

Go deeper: Why clean energy isn’t enough to tackle climate change

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