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Energy in the FY 2018 Omnibus: Technology Turnaround, and Big Gains for Research

Computing, fusion, nuclear power, and renewables were among many programs boosted in the sweeping spending bill.

See Also: DOE in the AAAS R&D Dashboard | Data Tables | ScienceInsider

How fortunes can change. In last year's budget request for FY 2018, the Trump Administration had recommended sweeping reductions to Department of Energy (DOE) technology programs nearly across the board, instead prioritizing the National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA). While subsequent appropriations did not go nearly as far, legislators still seemed ready to push for at least moderate cutbacks in many areas.

But the budget deal to raise the spending caps showed how crucial the fiscal context can be for energy technology. With Congress adopting a nearly 12 percent year-over-year increase for nondefense discretionary spending, gone was talk of even moderate reductions — at least for one year. Instead, appropriators protected and added substantial funding for most programs.

Bottom Line: The Office of Science, DOE's basic science arm, received a 16.1 percent increase to $6.3 billion, its largest since the days of the original America COMPETES. DOE's technology offices also received increases of at least eight percent with most in double-digits, continuing the irregular growth of recent years. And NNSA R&D programs also remained a priority, as one might have expected.

What's Increasing: Every basic science program gained. Some highlights:

Among technology programs, notable gains included:

  • Solar technology (including photovoltaics R&D), manufacturing programs, and vehicle technology (including battery tech, electricification, and advanced engines). Each of these programs received at least a $31 million plus-up over FY 2017.
  • Nuclear reactor technology: among many other increases, legislators included $60 million for a new soliciation to address the technical challenges around first-of-a-kind reactor technology, including next-generation light water and non-light water reactors and small modular reactors. Legislators also boosted R&D programs on accident tolerant fuels, spent fuel disposition, and light water reactor sustainability.
  • $35 million in new funding for a pair of large-scale pilot plants focusing on advanced coal technology. The bill also included funding for a new consortia to improve recovery from unconvential oil and natural gas resources.
  • Notably, appropriators saved the Advanced Research Projects Agency-Energy (ARPA-E) from elimination, instead granting a 15.5 percent or $47 million increase.

NNSA science and engineering programs were also increased. NNSA's exascale initiative funding was increased to $161 million, a 69.5 percent increase above the FY 2017 appropriation, and an additional $25 million was added for exascale-related construction. Funding for the National Ignition Facility (Livermore) and the OMEGA Facility (University of Rochester) received at least moderate increases; the latter has been slated for a three-year funding shutdown in the FY 2019 budget request.

What's Protected: While not necessarily provided large funding increases, several facilities and programs were protected from the Administration's recommended cuts, which would have meant reduced research, scaled back operations or, in some cases, terminations and closures. Protected programs include:
  • The Biological and Environmental Research Program's user facilities
  • Basic Energy Science user facilities; the Administration had recommended, among other things, ceasing funding for two out of the five Nanoscale Science Centers.
  • Facility for Rare Isotope Beam construction at Michigan State, which received $17 million more than requested to remain near FY 2017 funding.
  • Several Obama-era initiatives including the Energy Frontier Research Centers, the innovation hubs, and DOE's manufacturing innovation centers.
  • The National Wind Technology Center and DOE's concentrated solar power program.

In Historical Context: Office of Science funding would reach an all-time high in the aggregate, while most technology offices would also either surpass or approach the funding high points of recent years (see graphs on this page).

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Photo Credit: DOE/Sandia Lab