US: Insufficient funding for energy research

There seemed to be no visible opposition against nominee Moniz at the confirmation hearing that took place at the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee on April 9. Political pundits are certain he has the job in his pocket. And, with the bets on Moniz coming into power, the U.S. renewable energy development question was one that came up at the hearing.

Moniz stated that renewables are central to the U.S. energy mix, adding that solar power has made tremendous advances. He further highlighted the fact that having reached the US$1/W mark is fantastic progress. Nevertheless, he said, there still has not been enough focus on solar power.

Not enough

Reports have been circling that the U.S. in general has not spent enough on energy research. However, the American Association for the Advancement of Science’s (AAAS) report on the trends in the energy department’s R&D program shows that there has been a significant focus on "Efficiency and Renewables."

Indeed, despite the percentage set aside for this sector shrinking from 2010 to 2011, more has been allocated in 2012 and 2013. It has to be also considered that the Department of Energy’s Advanced Research Projects Agency-Energy (ARPA-E), which funds early stage research into prototyping potentially transformative energy technologies like storage methods and cheaper solar cells, has funding allocation that is separate from the above-mentioned category.

Still this is not seen as sufficient. Alan Franken, Senator from Minnesota, stated that data shows that the U.S. has only spent US$5 billion on energy research, whereas $80 billion went into defense research, for example. He found this troubling considering the fact that the U.S., and the world for that matter, has a serious climate change crisis to deal with. Moniz promptly agreed stating, "I would note if one does simple arithmetic as a guide … we are under investing by a factor of three."

Fiscal budget

Meanwhile, the Obama administration’s fiscal budget proposal for 2014 calls for renewable energy and energy efficiency research spending to increase by around 50%, reports local media. This will bring the research total to about $2.27 billion. This additional amount is welcomed by the sector.

Rhone Resch, president and CEO of the Solar Energy Industries Association (SEIA), stated, "We praise the President for emphasizing that a transition to sustainable energy sources is vital – and that the U.S. must lead it. Solar is the fastest-growing clean energy technology available today. It is not only powering our nation, it is an engine of economic growth. The number of U.S. solar jobs has jumped 13.2 percent in the last year alone, and doubled over the last three years."

According to the speech made by Moniz, another $9 billion to $10 billion would "seem to be the right amount." He made the promise that if he did take over the position as energy secretary, despite tight budgets, he would try to leverage funding as much as possible to move technologies to a point where the private sectors can successfully develop them.

All of the above

Despite the positive tone set by Moniz, skeptics think of his approach as one that follows the "all of the above" strategy, supporting not just renewables, but also other sources like oil and gas. On April 9, a letter was sent to the Committee on Energy and Natural Resources by more than 100 mostly local groups expressing concern about Moniz’s "close ties to the oil and gas industry."

The letter also claims that, according to a report by the Public Accountability Initiative, the MIT Energy Initiative, directed by Moniz has in the last 7 years been given pledges of over $145 million from oil and gas companies alone. Fuel concern BP pledged $50 million.

Nevertheless, support for Moniz remains strong.

Former energy secretary

Steven Chu will be stepping down as U.S. Energy Secretary. He channeled funding in the direction of clean tech that gained him support from the climate-conscious. This is despite some of his bets, like Solyndra, not paying off.

Chu is said to leave the office with an impressive record; U.S. carbon emissions have fallen 13% in the last five years. This percentage is now at the halfway point towards reaching President Obama’s goal of cutting emissions 17% below 2005 levels by 2020.

Bloomberg reported in January that the U.S. carbon-dioxide emissions last year were the lowest since 1994. A significant contribution comes from the renewable energy sector.

Edited by Becky Beetz.