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By William Thomas
Efforts to promote energy innovation are taking shape in the Senate amid a swelling wave of congressional interest in climate change. Key senators have now agreed in principle that a sizeable funding increase is warranted, and several committee leaders are pushing legislation to spur new energy technologies.
In March, Sen. Lamar Alexander (R-TN) proposed a “New Manhattan Project for Clean Energy” that would “double energy research funding” over five years. His proposal also outlines nine “grand challenge” focus areas for enhanced effort: advanced nuclear energy, natural gas, carbon capture, better batteries, greener buildings, electric vehicles, cheaper solar power, fusion energy, and advanced computing.
Alexander has often proposed such large-scale increases in Department of Energy R&D funding, going back to shortly after he joined the Senate in 2003. As recently as 2016, he called for doubling the DOE Office of Science budget and paying for it by ending the wind energy production tax credit.
As chair of the Senate appropriations subcommittee for DOE, Alexander has a strong platform from which to push his plans. However, his budgetary power is constrained by the total amount of discretionary funding allocated to his subcommittee. Although Alexander has often marshaled strong budgets for DOE, he has never realized his more ambitious goals. Now, he is down to his final opportunities, having announced he will not seek reelection in 2020.
Meanwhile, leaders of the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee are sponsoring bills that would support the development of new nuclear and fossil energy technologies. They also plan to consider options for promoting renewable energy, energy storage, and other energy technologies.
Committee Chair Lisa Murkowski (R-AK) has reintroduced the bipartisan Nuclear Energy Leadership Act, which would direct DOE to complete two advanced reactor demonstration projects by 2026 and at least two additional demonstrations by 2036, among other provisions. Murkowski and Committee Ranking Member Joe Manchin (D-WV) have also introduced the Enhancing Fossil Fuel Energy Carbon Technology (EFFECT) Act and the Rare Earth Element Advanced Coal Technologies (REEACT) Act. The EFFECT Act would authorize new fossil energy technology programs at DOE and recommend increased funding for them, while the REEACT Act would back ongoing R&D related to the extraction of rare earth elements from coal and coal byproducts.
Manchin is also a sponsor of the bipartisan Utilizing Significant Emissions with Innovative Technologies (USE IT) Act, introduced by Senate Environment and Public Works Committee Chair John Barrasso (R-WY). The bill would promote R&D on technologies that capture carbon dioxide from the atmosphere.
Manchin has argued the U.S. should look for near-term opportunities to export carbon-reducing technologies to countries that are rapidly increasing energy production, often using fossil fuels. Coal plays a significant role in the economy of Manchin’s state, which is also home to a branch of the National Energy Technology Laboratory, the focal point for DOE’s fossil energy R&D. At a hearing on energy innovation in April, he remarked, “If the solution to the climate crisis leaves West Virginia coal communities behind, then it is not a solution.”
The proponents of all these proposals will have to navigate a swirl of ideological currents to see them become law. While an increasing number of Republicans say it is important to address climate change, the party is not in consensus on the matter. Also, although emphasizing energy innovation meshes with the Trump administration’s promotion of a “New American Energy Era,” the White House has consistently sought dramatic cuts to energy R&D budgets. And Democrats will undoubtedly push to include their own priorities in any major legislation, further complicating the political calculus.
The author is Senior Science Policy Analyst with FYI.
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