How to Push Climate and Energy Funding through a Republican Congress

February 12, 2016 | 3:17 pm
Rob Cowin
Former Contributor

Every year the president outlines priorities for his administration and the country through his budget request to Congress; and being that he’s got the biggest megaphone in the world, his priorities do matter. But the Republican Congress controls the purse strings, and the president isn’t exactly winning popularity contests with those folks. So what climate and energy priorities can actually get funded in the Republican Congress? Lots, actually.

Unfortunately the disconnect between the administration and Congress means that good ideas coming out of the budget are too often politicized and met with misguided opposition. It puts a target on ideas that otherwise could have garnered bipartisan support, if they came from a different messenger. It’s not fair, but that’s the way it is.

If we want to make progress on climate and clean energy policy, then, we have to do the tough work of identifying and aggressively pursuing those budget priorities that can advance in a conservative political environment. And that, actually, is what the president’s budget does.

“Let’s innovate the hell out of our problems,” said the Democrat (or was it a Republican?)


The president is requesting $7.7 billion in discretionary funding for clean energy R&D. Photo: University of Georgia

The president has put forth a bold vision on clean energy research, development, and demonstration through his FY17 budget request, putting us on a path to double the amount of base-level federal investment of $6.4 billion in 2016 to $12.8 billion in 2021. His budget effectively codifies the Mission Innovation initiative, joining 19 other countries that have pledged to double clean energy R&D investment over the next five years. For 2017 the president is requesting $7.7 billion in discretionary funding for clean energy R&D across 12 agencies, with 76 percent of the funding directed to the Department of Energy (DOE) for critical clean energy development activities.

The good part is the president’s clean energy R&D budget request has an excellent chance of getting funded; there are leading Republican appropriators who also see this as a priority. People like Senator Lamar Alexander (R-TN), Chairman of the Energy and Water Subcommittee on Appropriations, who believes “research and technology are driving forces in job creation” and has long supported “doubling the amount of money we spend on energy research in America.” Why? Because “it fits a Republican pro-growth agenda.

Senator Lamar Alexander plugs in. Photo: Office of Lamar Alexander

Senator Lamar Alexander plugs in. Photo: Office of Lamar Alexander

A closer look at where R&D priorities align reveals a very well thought out and strategic budget request. The DOE office of Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy (EERE) would get a boost (roughly $650 million increase), but it’s allocated towards technology areas that are attractive to Republicans for local, political, and ideological reasons.

For example:

  • It increases R&D funding for vehicle technologies by roughly 50%—something appropriators who represent states with thriving auto industries (like Chairman Alexander’s state of Tennessee) can get behind.
  • While wind power (not one of Sen. Alexander’s favorite energy technologies) and solar receive pretty much level funding, other renewables like geothermal, an important energy resource in the state of Idaho, represented by Congressman Simpson (Chairman of the House Energy and Water Subcommittee on Appropriations) would get a 33% increase.
  • Weatherization, building efficiency, and other energy efficiency programs which have historically enjoyed bipartisan supports get a meaningful 18% bump.
  • Title 17 energy loan guarantees, once loved by Republicans and Democrats alike (and perhaps no longer tainted by “solyndrafication”) would get an increase of $4 billion.
  • And bipartisan energy infrastructure priorities like grid modernization and boosting energy storage technologies would get an increase of 50% or more.

ARPA-E is super sexy


Graphic: ARPA-E, U.S. Department of Energy

The Advanced Research Project Agency (ARPA-E) does research and development of potential “game-changing” energy technologies, most of them low-carbon. The ARPA-E budget has increased by more than 50% over the last five years in a Republican Congress, so there is clearly strong bipartisan support for the program. The president has wisely decided to double down on ARPA-E in his FY17 budget request to the tune of $500 million—over a 70% increase in funding.

Republicans like ARPA-E because its projects help create businesses and drive private sector investment in a variety of innovative technologies. It also helps keep our country globally competitive in the race for energy security. These projects and businesses are located in both blue and red states, and they benefit local economies.

Regardless of how polarizing the debate on climate change has become, there are still appropriators who don’t want to see American businesses miss out on the rapidly growing domestic and global market for clean energy.

This statement by Chairman Alexander at the 2013 ARPA-E Summit provides real insight into what the Republican appeal is:

“[ARPA-E] offers market-driven solutions, not just the government picking winners and losers; it focuses on cheaper energy, increasing prosperity for largest number of people; it focuses on cleaner energy, not just a government definition of renewable energy; and it focuses on research and development instead of government mandates and subsidies.”

It’s no giant leap, but it’s no small step either

They (whoever “they” are) say that half of success is showing up. While I agree with the sentiment, I prefer to tweak it to say, “half of success is being prepared and then showing up.”

When it comes to clean energy R&D funding in the FY17 budget, the administration did its homework. While I’m a bit surprised there wasn’t more requested for Republican-friendly (and low-carbon) advanced nuclear and fossil R&D, for the most part they capitalized on synergies in interests across the regional, political, and ideological spectrum. And they ultimately developed a budget that blends aggressive financial support for research, development, and deployment of clean energy technologies and infrastructure with the art of the possible, even the probable. What good is a budget if Congress won’t fund it?

This is a very doable budget request in a Republican Congress, and while I certainly wish it was even more aggressive on the wind and solar side, the other low-carbon and efficiency support will help us continue to move the ball forward on reducing emissions and strengthen our position in the global clean energy market.