Last week, the powerful Senate Appropriations Committee approved the fiscal year 2018 Energy and Water Appropriations Bill, which establishes funding levels for energy and water research, development, and infrastructure.

The bill provides $38.4 billion to fund U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) programs, critical infrastructure projects administered by the Army Corps of Engineers and Bureau of Reclamation, and related agencies. The bill is $629 million above the fiscal year 2017 enacted level and a whopping $4.1 billion above the President’s request — which cut some DOE programs by as much as 70 percent. The bill was approved 30-1.

“This legislation approved today by the full Senate Appropriations Committee contains record levels of funding for the Army Corps of Engineers to improve our nation’s water infrastructure, the Office of Science, which conducts basic science and energy research, and ARPA-E, which supports transformational, high-impact energy technologies,” said U.S. Senator Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.), chairman of the Senate Energy and Water Development Appropriations Subcommittee.  “Senator Feinstein (D-Calif.) and I have worked together under very challenging fiscal constraints this year the same way we always have – in a fair and accommodating manner – with the goal of drafting a bipartisan bill that prioritizes spending and reduces waste.  We hope this bill can be one of the first appropriations bills considered by the full Senate this year.”

The Senate’s bipartisan move to sustain funding for key energy research and development programs is a sharp break from both President Trump’s budget request and the U.S. House of Representatives in a number of ways. First, it not only restores but increases funding for the Advanced Research Projects Agency – Energy (ARPA-E), which funds high-risk, high-reward research with the potential to achieve breakthroughs in U.S. energy competiveness. While the President’s budget request and the House appropriations bill both aimed to zero-out and eliminate ARPA-E, the Senate bill increases its funding by $24 million versus fiscal year 2017 levels. Furthermore, the accompanying report written by the Senate Appropriations committee bullishly rejects any moves to eliminate ARPA-E:

The budget request proposes to terminate ARPA–E and use funds appropriated in fiscal year 2017 for oversight and management. The Committee definitively rejects this short-sighted proposal, and instead increases investment in this transformational program and directs the Department [of Energy] to continue to spend funds provided on research and development and program direction. The Department [of Energy] shall not use any appropriated funds to plan or execute the termination of ARPA–E. In addition, the Committee remains concerned about the timeliness of the current review process, and directs the Department to continue to move forward on approving Funding Opportunity Announcements.

The Senate bill’s second major break from the President and the House is its relatively high funding levels for the Office of Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy (EERE). The Senate bill funds EERE at $1.94 billion, roughly $153 million below fiscal year 2017 levels. This cut pales in comparison to the President’s proposed cut of $1.45 billion (70 percent) or the House’s cut of $986 million (47 percent). Furthermore, the Senate’s report on the bill makes a strong case against the President’s proposal to focus exclusively on early-stage energy research, arguing that eliminating funding for scale up from the lab to the marketplace risks squandering early-stage technological achievements:

The President’s budget request proposes a shift away from later stage research and development activities to refocus the Department [of Energy] on an early-stage research and development mission. The Committee believes that such an approach will not successfully integrate the results of early-stage research and development into the U.S. energy system and thus will not adequately deliver innovative energy technologies, practices, and information to American consumers and companies. Notably, this is the case with complex systems and structures such as America’s homes, offices and other buildings. The Committee provides funding to support a comprehensive and real-world strategy that includes medium- and later-stage research and development; deployment and demonstration activities; and other approaches that are designed to utilize the most effective means to increase buildings’ energy efficiency in order to promote their affordability, sustainability, resilience, and productivity.

This philosophical break with the Trump administration’s priorities is in some ways even more significant than the huge disparity in the amount of funds appropriated for energy research and development.

The next step in the budget process is for the House and Senate to iron out the differences in their two appropriations to determine a final concurrent budget resolution. In practice, this is carried out by a budget conference committee made up of legislators from both the House and Senate. Considering the vast difference in the two chambers’ visions for federally-supported energy research and development, it will be very interesting to see what comes out in the compromise concurrent budget resolution.

While the issue of the federal budget might just sound like dollars and cents, the programs the budget supports play a strong role in steering national energy policy, and the future trajectory of both the U.S. and global energy system. In my view, it’s no coincidence that the rise of the U.S. clean energy industry closely followed the $31 billion investment in clean energy made as part of the 2009 American Recovery and Reinvestment Act to help bolster the U.S. economy. Make no mistake — the budget is policy. In the end, it matters a whole lot more than what is said from the pulpit.


Disclaimer: The author is currently a AAAS Science & Technology Policy Fellow in the U.S. Department of Energy Office of Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy’s Building Technologies Office. Any views expressed are his own and do not reflect the view of his office or the U.S. Department of Energy.