Two Cheers for the President’s Announcement on Clean Energy

Two Cheers for the President’s Announcement on Clean Energy

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This weekend, in his weekly address, the President announced a “Doubling Our Clean Energy Funding to Address the Challenge of Climate Change.” This funding was announced in the Fiscal Year 2017 Budget, released on Tuesday, February 9.

There are important additions to the President’s budget to increase funding for clean energy innovation. The “Mission Innovation” commitments made by governments and investors in Paris could prove to be transformative for the energy sector – but they could also prove to be underwhelming. In order to achieve the great leaps forward that we need in energy, governments and investors must truly fund long-term R&D, not simply following what the private sector is already doing. At this point, I’m afraid it’s a little of both: important funding through ARPA-E, NASA, and DoE’s Office of Science, but also too much money going into funding technology that the private sector already is funding, like deploying solar panels and geothermal power.

If the President were serious about a truly transformative energy technology, he would announce a doubling or tripling of funding for fusion energy research along with this other research, as the rewards of fusion – clean, safe, secure, and unlimited energy – are far more transformative than incremental advances in something like batteries. ASP has proposed a fusion “Apollo Program” that would lead to significant breakthroughs in fusion over the next decade if implemented. At only $3 billion in funding per year, this plan would easily fit inside the proposed budget expansion of Mission Innovation. Instead, we see that funding for fusion research to the Department of Energy’s Office of Fusion Energy Sciences was cut from $438 million in 2016 funding to $398 million in 2017. Very strange to see a call for “transformative” research into energy, and then a cut to the one type that would be truly transformative.

Of course, all of this is mostly an exercise in setting priorities, not actual legislating. The Republicans who control Congress are going to have their own priorities, and they are unlikely to match with the President’s. But, priorities are important, as Democrats in Congress showed by including important funding for renewable tax credits in last December’s Omnibus Appropriations bill.

So, two cheers for President Obama’s clean energy budget, but I will reserve the third cheer for the next President to pursue a truly transformative clean energy solution. Recent action in the House and the Senate shows that there is scope for bipartisan agreement on next-generation energy solutions.

The President’s address is below. Here are the energy budget numbers.