Lewis M. Milford
Former Nonresident Senior Fellow - Metropolitan Policy Program
Senior Fellow - Brookings Metro
Something has changed in Congress’ dealings with the Trump administration.
The effort to repeal the Affordable Care Act foundered. New sanctions on Russia were passed despite President Trump’s objections. Senators from both sides of the aisle proposed legislation to protect Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s independent and ongoing investigation of Russian meddling. An immigration proposal appeared to be dead on arrival after being immediately shot down by leading Republicans.
Providing perhaps the hint of a political inflection point, the legislative body’s resurgence of flexed congressional power was striking.
But amidst all of the high-profile political developments, a dramatic example of legislative pushback in clean energy policy received too little attention.
Recently, the Senate Committee on Appropriations issued a bipartisan report on the FY18 Budget for the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE). Senator Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.) leads this committee, which it turns out has now set out a completely different clean energy agenda than the President’s proposed budget.
Recall that the Trump administration’s budget for DOE calls for massive funding cuts to high-profile clean energy projects, including the elimination of DOE’s Advanced Research Projects Agency-Energy (ARPA-E) and huge gouges into the budgets of numerous renewable and energy efficiency programs. Underlying these cuts is the familiar right-wing assumption that DOE should retreat back to the business of basic research, and not seek to test or commercialize technologies in the marketplace. “Let companies do projects and keep the government at the lab bench” has been the mantra.
Yet now comes the new view. Two weeks ago, the bipartisan Senate appropriations committee said thanks, but no thanks to the administration’s approach. Instead, the committee’s $38.4 billion budget came in $4 billion higher than Trump’s proposed DOE budget. Most importantly, to support this budget increase, the committee’s report (passed by a vote of 38-1) detailed a full-throated defense of robust and smart federal government action in all phases of clean energy development, from the lab to the marketplace.
Along these lines, the committee report lays out a comprehensive rationale for an aggressive DOE strategy to advance clean energy funding and projects on a wide array of fronts:
The President’s budget request proposes a shift away from later stage research and development activities to refocus the Department 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.
The Senate committee emphasized the agency’s critical role at every stage of clean energy technology development:
The Committee rejects the budget’s sole focus on early-stage research. Most utilities have limited research and development budgets, primarily due to regulatory constraints designed to keep electricity costs low for consumers. Additionally, utilities are unlikely to implement new concepts because most utilities would need to use their own systems for testing and evaluation, which could impact consumers. State public utility commissions also have limited budgets that do not support research and development. The States rely heavily on the Department’s technical assistance on assessments of data and tools to help them evaluate grid modernization alternatives. The Department plays a vital role, not only in early-stage research, but also in deployment, field testing, and evaluation.
Having expressed its rationale, moreover, the committee then acted on it. Specifically, the members increased the budgets for DOE’s solar programs, as the committee “recognizes that solar energy is one of the fastest growing industries in the United States, and employs over 260,000 workers today.”
The committee also increased funding support for offshore wind development, noting that the increased budget “will enable these technologies to compete in the marketplace without the need for subsidies, and on activities that will accelerate fundamental offshore-specific research and development, such as those that target technology and deployment challenges unique to U.S. waters.”
Additionally, the Senate committee increased the DOE budget for energy storage, noting that government support for storage research and demonstration projects, both in terms of innovation and advancement in distributed energy resources, “is helping the Nation’s power grid to better address reliability, resiliency, safety, and accessibility.” Further, the committee declared:
This [work to advance distributed energy resources] enhances our Nation’s energy security and global leadership. Energy storage is needed to better enable distributed energy resources; integrate intermittent uses such as water heaters, electric vehicle chargers, battery storage systems, and pumps; help balance supply and demand in the power grid to aid consumers to better manage their energy costs; protect residential and commercial customers and public services from power interruptions; and improve grid security and reliability.
In the end, the Senate committee sent a strong, upper chamber congressional rebuke to Trump’s proposed budget. Quite simply, the panel left no ambiguity in its stance that the country needs greater support for clean energy—for national security, economic, and environmental reasons. And beyond that it declared that Congress should not be held responsible for allowing the country to diminish its leadership in clean energy.
In some ways, the Senate’s budget actions resembled its recent refusal to repeal and replace current laws on health care. In large part, the decision not to repeal the Affordable Care Act—a law viewed by many as imperfect—was a result of it becoming an engrained part of the country’s health care system. Clean energy, much like health care, is now also mainstream, woven deeply into the fabric of the larger American energy and economic system. It’s not easy to reverse a policy course that has become firmly embedded into our economy. Clean energy is here to stay, and the Senate confirmed that in its approach to DOE in its budget.
In sum, the last few weeks were a notable reassertion of the Senate’s role as a constitutional check on executive overreach. But they also provided a sensible course on clean energy. Let’s hope the House adopts a bit of the Senate’s moderation.
Lew Milford is the president of Clean Energy Group and a non-resident senior fellow with the Brookings Metropolitan Policy Program.