On track: clean energy in the US fights on

21 June 2018 (Last Updated June 20th, 2018 16:09)

The Trump administration’s demands for deep cuts to clean energy investment have not been met in the US Government’s new omnibus spending package. What might be possible with this boosted funding, and what might the political ramifications be?

On track: clean energy in the US fights on
Many members of Congress recognise that funding science and technology is critical to our nation, economic growth and public wellbeing,” said American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) chief executive Rush Holt in a statement. Credit: Courtesy of Architect of the Capitol

On 23 March, US Congress voted a clear 256 to 167 to approve the omnibus spending bill. The $1.3tn bill, signed just 24 hours before the deadline, will keep the federal government open and running until September this year.

The bill is a blow to the Trump administration, essentially ignoring demands for deep cuts to clean energy investment made in his budget proposal. As such, it has been praised by many of those who feared the effect Trump’s budget could have on the growth of clean energy in the US.

“Many members of Congress recognise that funding science and technology is critical to our nation, economic growth and public wellbeing,” said American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) chief executive Rush Holt in a statement. “According to AAAS estimates, total federal R&D spending will reach its highest point ever in inflation-adjusted dollars. This is something to celebrate. We are gratified to see such a strong showing of support for science agencies and programmes, including the National Institutes of Health and Department of Energy.”

Funding for renewable energy has been protected through bipartisan effort, but will that be enough to keep the industry booming in the US?

Trump’s demands and the Congressional response

During his election campaign and his time in office, US President Donald Trump has promoted ‘clean coal’ and defamed renewable energy sources. In a radio interview during his campaign he said: “Unfortunately, [renewable energy is] not working on a large-scale. It’s just not working. Solar is very, very expensive. Wind is very, very expensive, and it only works when it’s windy.”

As such, it was unsurprising when Trump’s budget proposal included huge cuts to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), the Office of Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy and the Advanced Research Projects Agency – Energy (ARPA-E).

The White House had proposed cutting the EPA’s budget by nearly a third. However, this was rejected in the spending bill, with Congress instead deciding to keep its current funding level of $8.1bn.

Similarly, Trump’s budget proposal suggested completely eliminating ARPA-E. Instead of cutting it, however, its funding was boosted by $47m to $353m. The DOE’s Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy office saw an increase of 15% to its funding, instead of a cut of $1.3bn, leaving it with a budget of $2.3bn.

“Congress increased funding for the Energy Department’s clean energy research and development programmes,” said Union of Concerned Scientists president Ken Kimmell in a statement. “This was a complete repudiation of the president’s attempt to gut some of these programmes and outright eliminate the nation’s early-stage clean energy innovation programme, known as ARPA-E. I hope to see Congress increase funding even more next fiscal year to help the US remain on the cutting-edge in this highly competitive field.”

A high price for power

The reaction to the spending bill has been polarised, with President Trump himself bemoaning the mega-budget and initially threatening to veto it, before eventually signing it off.

“There are a lot of things I’m unhappy about in this bill,” Trump said after signing the bill. “There are a lot of things we shouldn’t have had in this bill but we were, in a sense, forced if we want to build our military, we were forced to have. There are some things we should have in the bill. But I say to Congress, I will never sign another bill like this again. I’m not going to do it again. Nobody read it. It’s only hours old. Some people don’t even know – it’s $1.3tn.”

Trump was joined in his disappointment by a number of senators, such as Republican Sen John Kennedy, representing Louisiana,  who described the spending package as “a great dane-sized whizz down the leg of every taxpayer”.

The key criticism of the bill is based on its size, $1.3tn, making it one of the largest budgets ever. The dramatic rejection of Trump’s dislike of the EPA and preference for funding traditional energy sources has led to condemnation from those who had hoped his presidency would prompt a step away from renewable technologies.

Renewable energy was protected due to cross-party alliances, highlighting that it remains a priority for many in the US Government. This is particularly noticeable with regards to ARPA-E, which has long seen bipartisan support due to the breadth of research it supports nationwide, covering both fossil fuels and renewable energy.

In many ways the final budget is unsurprising and likely to have few ramifications for Congress. Efforts to promote clean energy have been supported by both Republicans and Democrats alike for years, as the US seeks to accommodate increases in energy demand, tackle climate change and increase its exports of oil and gas. In many ways it is Trump who has bucked the trend, and not Congress.

What could the funding boost achieve?

While the boosted funding is undoubtedly a success for clean energy in the US, it is not out of the woods yet. Since Trump assumed office on 20 January 2017, changes have been made within the EPA and the DOE that have hampered development.

It may still be an uphill battle to ensure that the granted funding is correctly and effectively distributed to help the US move towards a cleaner energy mix. Since Trump’s election, it has been reported that global warming and climate change, issues intrinsically linked with renewable energy, have been removed from grant proposals and government websites. This symbolic move speaks volumes about the current administration’s stance on climate change and the role of renewables in America’s future.

The Environmental Data & Governance Initiative, a watchdog group, has tracked many of these removals and omissions, such as the website for Obama’s Clean Power Plan. “The removal of the EPA’s Clean Power Plan website in advance of the plan’s proposed repeal, obscuring compiled state emission policy information from those interested in researching the plan, is one example of how democratic policymaking is undermined,” the authors wrote.

The entire budget proposal was not welcomed by renewable energy advocates, with support for nuclear and coal also increasing. The DOE’s Office of Fossil Energy saw a boost of nearly $110m, despite the continued decline of the industries it supports. Similarly, a further $200m was allocated to aid the nuclear energy industry despite its recent struggles to compete in the open market.

One aspect of the bill which has divided opinion is its declaration that biomass is a carbon-neutral fuel. “While a group of lawmakers were able to block most of the harmful and unrelated measures tacked onto the bill, there still remain a few poison pill riders in here, including a biomass provision, that essentially thumb their nose at science,” said Kimmell. “By permanently decreeing that biomass is carbon-neutral, Congress has legislated the answer to a scientific question, and unfortunately the answer is simply wrong – all biomass is not carbon neutral. For lawmakers who claim to love the founding fathers, they would have sorely disappointed Ben Franklin.”

Progress is undoubtedly being made however, and 2017 saw the largest amount of renewable energy generation in the US ever. Sources including solar, wind and hydropower made up 18% of the overall energy mix. More renewable energy capacity was added last year than any other source, making up 49.9% of the 24.6GW added to the grid. Legislation is being brought in across the country to support renewable energy, such as in California, where all new houses are to be built with solar panels already installed.

Together with governmental support, the shifting economic profile of renewables is one of the most important factors for its future success. The cost of solar, for example, dropped by 25% in 2017 alone. Conversely, the costs associated with damage caused by climate change are increasing, driving many policymakers and industries towards renewable energy sources in an effort to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

The spending bill is a victory for clean energy and its supporters in the US, but its true success is yet to be seen. As the Trump administration appears set on continuing its attack on renewables funding in favour of coal and nuclear, Congress equally is prepared to fight for renewable technologies to ensure energy security and support growth.