U.S. government shutdown hits solar

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With the U.S. government in lockdown thanks to the standoff between the House of Representatives and the Senate, the Department of Energy’s (DoE) solar activities have been put on hold as thousands of employees have been ordered to take unpaid leave.

The DoE’s Advanced Research Projects Agency-Energy (ARPA-E) – which performs R&D in areas including smart grids; the National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL), which recently published a roadmap to driving down the non-hardware ‘soft costs’ of solar; the department’s Office of Management, responsible for US$22 billion of annual contract obligations and $2 billion of financial assistance obligations; and the Office of Indian Energy Policy and Programs, which is driving solar deployment of tribal lands, are among the divisions with solar commitments affected by the government shutdown.

As a result of Washington’s inability to agree a budget for the 2013-14 financial year, which started a week ago in the U.S., only essential federal employees – those concerned with protecting property and human life – are working.

SunShot lies idle

For the DoE, that means all but security staff and those tasked with maintaining energy infrastructure and nuclear security are on unpaid leave, meaning crucial solar programs like the SunShot Initiative are presumably idling – official confirmation is difficult to obtain with communications staff sat at home.

Although the DoE’s shutdown contingency plan – last updated on Wednesday – stipulates contracts such as SunShot agreements to fund solar research will be honored, it adds, once funding from previous years has been exhausted, "the department may need to review the activities of its contractors and only those activities where the suspension of the function of the contractor would immediately threaten the safety of human life, or the protection of property, will be permitted to continue."

Almost 13,000 DoE employees on unpaid leave

Across the energy department, only 948 of the usual 13,814 employees will be maintained, according to the contingency plan, published on the DoE website.

President Barack Obama, who is refusing to sign off a Republican-sponsored budget which neuters his universal ‘Obamacare’ healthcare reforms, used Saturday’s weekly address to call for a solution ‘with no partisan strings attached.’

The Republican House of Representatives has persisted in attempts to strangle universal healthcare and is due to reconvene at 4pm CET.

If the standoff persists until Friday October 17, the U.S. is expected to broach its $16 trillion debt ceiling, triggering a default, an event of such magnitude the world expects a solution before that point.

In the meantime, U.S. solar investors, manufacturers and SunShot funding recipients can only watch and wait.