Fossil Energy R&D Boosted, Science Flat in House Energy Appropriations

Nuclear energy R&D would make some gains while the numbers for other low-carbon energy technology programs vary in the current House bill.

When the House Appropriations Committee approved its FY 2015 Energy and Water bill on a voice vote earlier this week, the final funding numbers called to mind the debates from last year's bill. Like last year, the Committee would levy sizable reductions on many low-carbon energy technology programs at the Department of Energy (DOE) while favoring fossil energy technology, and showing fiscal restraint regarding the Office of Science and nuclear energy programs (see chart at right, depicting changes in total discretionary budget authority since FY 2012).

Regarding R&D (download R&D funding table), the current bill would provide $11.8 billion for DOE R&D, a 3.5 percent increase above FY 2014 levels but a 4.7 decrease below the President's budget request, according to current AAAS estimates. Adjusted for inflation, the FY 2015 committee figure would put DOE R&D at its highest point in 20 years and just ahead of FY 2010 levels, with recent National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA) R&D growth offsetting declines in the civilian programs over that time.

For the draft bill and accompanying report visit the Committee's website.

Office of Science (download funding table). The President's budget request sought only limited growth in the Office of Science (SC) budget, with increases in Advanced Scientific Computing Research, Basic Energy Sciences, Biological and Environmental Research, and Nuclear Physics offset by cuts to Fusion and High-Energy Physics. The House Committee opted to keep overall SC funding flat, while meeting the President halfway on priorities: the Advanced Computing and Nuclear Physics programs would receive roughly (or in the case of Advanced Computing, exactly) the request, while the cuts to High-Energy Physics would be somewhat smaller. The other three programs would move in opposite directions to the request, in that Fusion Energy would increase, Basic Energy Sciences would be trimmed, and Biological and Environmental Research would receive an 11.5 percent reduction from FY 2014 (see chart at right). To run down various provisions program-by-program:

  • Advanced Computing was the lone program for which the request was exactly matched. The Nuclear Physics budget was also essentially matched, with some modest increases for the Thomas Jefferson National Accelerator Facility and the Relativistic Heavy Ion Collider at Brookhaven Lab.

  • The Committee appeared to fall short of requested Basic Energy Sciences (BES) funding across multiple areas, though a closer look reveals mostly agreement. Most research programs in materials and chemical sciences, geosciences, and biosciences, including the Batteries and Energy Storage Innovation Hub and the Energy Frontier Research Centers, received the requested amount, and DOE's EPSCoR program actually received a $1.5 million, or 17 percent, increase above the request. Multiple scientific user facility activities were also fully funded. But, there were a few shortfalls. For instance: a new computional materials science activity received only $8 million of a requested $24 million; the Committee withheld some funding for light source operations, and $10 million was withheld for construction of the LINAC Coherent Light Source II at Stanford; and the Committee declined to provide the requested $24 million for the Fuels from Sunlight Innovation Hub. That project, originally slated for a five-year term beginning in FY 2010, received its fifth and apparently final allocation in FY 2014, pending a renewal or extension. In the Department's budget justification, however, DOE indicates the term runs through the end of FY 2015. It seems some clarity is needed.

  • Details are limited regarding the Biological and Environmental Research (BER) allocation, but the Committee chose to praise the program's biological research initiatives and not the environmental or climate research activities, and specifically provided no funding for BER's new climate modeling initiative. A reduction targeted at climate research would fit the themes established elsewhere. The BioEnergy Research Centers did receive the requested amount.

  • The Committee granted Fusion Energy increases essentially across the board for domestic research activities and facility operations. The Committee also granted an increase above both the request and FY 2014 levels for U.S. contributions to the International Thermonuclear Experimental Reactor, ITER, but expressed concerns over the project's managerial dysfunction, and thus prevented any funding from being spent until ITER implements the recommendations from a recent management revew. See this coverage from the New Yorker to read the executive summary of that review.

  • High-Energy Physics (HEP) would still receive a 2.8 percent cut, but would avoid the deeper cuts proposed by the Administration. These increases above the request are scattered throughout the program, including $22 million for the Long Baseline Neutrino Experiment.

Adjusted for inflation, the House Committee bill would leave the SC budget at its lowest point since FY 2008, continuing the recent slow erosion in funding there, though still 4.9 percent above FY 2013 post-sequestration levels.

Energy Programs (download funding table). As mentioned above, the funding allocations largely reflect some of the Committee's past preferences regarding energy technologies.

  • The Committee would grant an 8.6 percent increase to the Office of Electricity Delivery and Energy Reliability, well below the 22.2 percent increase requested by the Administration. The increase was fairly broad-based, with a focus on cybersecurity and grid resilience.

  • Few areas show a wider gap between the White House and House appropriators than Fossil Energy R&D. While DOE had sought a 15.4 percent cut to fossil energy technologies, the House Committee instead granted a 5.5 percent boost above FY 2014 levels. Carbon capture and sequestration activities would be trimmed somewhat from FY 2014 levels, but would still end up well above the funding request. Program areas slated for increases include work on advanced combustion systems, solid oxide fuel cells, plant optimization, and natural gas technology. The Committee added $15 million for a joint program with the Office of Nuclear Energy and the Office of Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy for supercritical carbon dioxide power conversion. The House bill would leave Fossil Energy R&D funding generally below historical levels, but at its highest point since FY 2011.

  • The gap between the Administration and appropriators is smaller for the Office of Nuclear Energy, though the House Committee would still grant an increase when the Administration sought a decrease. Notable increases include funding for user facilities, modeling and simulation, and advanced reactor R&D. The Committee matched the request for the Energy Innovation Hub for Modeling and Simulation, and for the aforementioned supercritical CO2 program in conjunction with other DOE program offices. Funding for small modular reactor licensing support was significantly reduced.

  • The Office of Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy (EERE) is the lone applied technology office to be cut from FY 2014 levels under the House bill, though some EERE programs would fare better than others: changes from FY 2014 range from a 34.4 percent cut to water power and a 30.8 percent cut for solar energy, to a 21.3 percent increase for wind energy. Only the Hydrogen and Fuel Cell Technologies program would exceed the President's request. The Committee provided only about one-third of the funding requested for the establishment of a new Clean Energy Manufacturing Innovation Institute, though the Committee did match the request for the Critical Materials Innovation Hub.

  • Lastly, the Advanced Research Projects Agency-Energy would receive flat funding under the House bill.

National Nuclear Security Administration (download funding table). According to current AAAS estimates, NNSA would make the largest R&D gains from FY 2014 levels under the House bill, though again funding would fall shy of the request. This is due in part to assorted gains for naval reactor development activities and to a relatively large increase for nonproliferation R&D, the latter of which NNSA had sought to cut. The Committee also boosted NNSA's science and computing & simulation activities funding above FY 2014 levels.

The bill now heads to the House floor.