In Six Months, We Might Lose It All: The US Department of Energy

Last week, I mentioned that the Energy Department will play a key role in the implementation of an energy transition. The issue in question was the recent changes that were just issued for FERC (Federal Energy Regulatory Commission). As was mentioned there, this is the commission responsible for regulating the national electricity grid. As such, this committee is one of the most important governmental tools for coordinating the required energy transition. After all, the transition is heavily dependent on a significant increase of electricity use. However, FERC is susceptible to major changes if the presidential election results in the re-election of ex-president Trump.

The Department of Energy is the main federal governmental agency responsible for coordinating the transition (as I will show in next week’s blog, however, it is not the only one). The present administration has now committed to transitioning our energy use away from fossil fuels and into sustainable energy. Most of this policy shift is reversible and thus makes it susceptible to changes in the federal government. For historical reasons, regulating our energy use is not the only job of the Department of Energy. A brief history of the department can be found on Wikipedia.

The best way to illustrate the vulnerabilities is to follow the changes in the departmental budget during President Trump’s tenure, which started in 2017. Figure 1 shows these changes.

Figure 1 – FY2020 request from DOE, FY2020 Congressional Budget Request: Budget in Brief (March 2019). FY2019 enacted and FY2018 enacted from the Joint Explanatory Statement accompanying H.Rept. 115-929 (Conference report) for P.L. 115-244) (Source:

The abbreviations in this figure stand for the following:

NNSA: National Nuclear Security Administration

ARPA-E: Advanced Research Projects Agency

Most of the changes that are now being implemented to facilitate the energy transition to more sustainable sources are summarized by a report written by ITIF (Information Technology & Innovation Foundation). The executive summary of this report is given below:

The Biden administration’s FY 2024 budget request (PBR) for the Department of Energy (DOE) calls for an 18 percent increase in investment in clean energy research, development, and demonstration (RD&D) over FY 2023-enacted levels. The 117th Congress passed three landmark bills—the Investment in Infrastructure and Jobs Act (IIJA), the CHIPS and Science Act (CHIPS), and the Inflation Reduction Act (IRA)—that are reshaping energy innovation in the United States. But despite boosts from these bills, the requested levels for many energy RD&D programs trend below the levels that the Information Technology and Innovation Foundation (ITIF) and the Center on Global Energy Policy recommended in their 2020 report Energizing America.1 Continuing along Energizing America’s recommended trajectory is vital to develop the climate solutions the world needs while strengthening the competitiveness of U.S. technology developers and manufacturers.

The context for federal clean energy innovation investments is daunting. Unabated fossil fuels still dominate global consumption. New technologies that would drastically reduce greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions from many major sources cost substantially more than incumbent solutions, perform too poorly, or are simply unavailable. Although the global energy innovation system still has major gaps, many countries have advanced assertive programs targeting specific sectors that collectively threaten U.S. leadership, including in public funding for energy RD&D, where the United States has long been the top investor.

Yet, had it kept pace with growth in the U.S. economy since DOE’s founding in 1978, the department’s RD&D budget today would be $32 billion, more than three times its level in fiscal year 2023. The bipartisan consensus that led to recent legislation and funding increases must be sustained and further elevated to approach that level again, as numerous expert studies have advocated. At a time when the nation really needs a big boost from innovation to address competitiveness, climate change, and supply chain resilience, DOE’s budget is still a modest 0.04 percent of gross domestic product (GDP)—below several peer countries such as Norway, France, Finland, and even China. Congress should seize the opportunity to sustain the momentum, accelerate domestic clean energy industries, and shape the U.S. response to climate change. This report describes DOE’s RD&D programs, assesses significant updates to them, and discusses notable gaps that still remain. It is supported by an interactive data visualization that will be updated throughout the FY 2024 budget cycle.

As was mentioned before, the Department of Energy is responsible for putting most of these changes into effect, meaning that the department is vulnerable to changes in the priorities of the federal government. To outline these vulnerabilities, we will have to examine the present structure of the department through its web page (Department of Energy). The website is divided into the four focus areas of the department: Science and Innovation, Energy Economy, Security and Safety, and Energy Saving. The Science and Innovation section is the most vulnerable to governmental changes and will be described in some detail below, followed by short descriptions of the other three sections:

Science and Innovation:

As a science agency, the Energy Department plays an important role in the innovation economy. The Department catalyzes the transformative growth of basic and applied scientific research, the discovery and development of new clean energy technologies and prioritizes scientific innovation as a cornerstone of US economic prosperity.

Through initiatives like the Loan Programs Office and the Advanced Research Projects Agency-Energy (ARPA-E), the Department funds cutting-edge research and the deployment of innovative clean energy technologies. The Department also encourages collaboration and cooperation between industry, academia and government to create a vibrant scientific ecosystem.

In addition, the Energy Department’s 17 National Laboratories are a system of intellectual assets unique among world scientific institutions and serve as regional engines of economic growth for states and communities across the country.

This section of the website includes the following subsections: Energy Sources, Clean Energy, Efficiency, Artificial Intelligence, Climate Change, Vehicles, and STEM.

Digging deeper into Argonne National Laboratory, one of the 17 national research laboratories mentioned above, one finds the National Virtual Climate Laboratory:

The NVCL is a portal for those working on the climate crisis, such as researchers, students, faculty, and other interested organizations. Portal users can find a wide range of national laboratory experts, programs, projects, activities, and user facilities that are engaged in climate research across the BER portfolio.

NVCL Objectives

  1. Centralize access to DOE climate research

Offer a well-curated, easily accessible, plain-language inventory of BER projects related to climate research and user facilities. The portal content is updated regularly.

  1. List related opportunities

Provide students, faculty, and research scientists access to internship, educational, and training opportunities at DOE and participating DOE laboratories. Opportunities provide coaching and mentoring in the skills they need to ensure success in their careers.

  1. Encourage collaborations

Facilitate robust, self-sustaining collaborations between national laboratories and interested organizations, including colleges and universities that serve underrepresented students such as Minority-Serving Institutions (MSIs) and Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs).

Short descriptions of the other three sections are given below:

Energy Economy. Mainly includes related economic data. Divided into sections that include Resources for Small Businesses; data; Work Force Training’ and Subtopics such as Prices and Trends, Funding and Finances, Federal States and Local Governments, Manufacturing and Inventions and Patents.

Security and Safety:

The Energy Department plays an important and multifaceted role in protecting national security. In addition to our work to increase nuclear nonproliferation and ensure the security of the U.S. nuclear weapons stockpile, we manage the Strategic Petroleum Reserve, invest in protections against cyber and physical attacks on U.S. energy infrastructure, conduct programs to ensure worker health and safety, and provide training tools and procedures for emergency response and preparedness.

I was not authorized to open the “Nuclear Security & Nonproliferation” part of the website (I have no idea why such information is posted on the Internet!), however, the part that is accessible is the main page of the NNSA (National Nuclear Security Administration).

The last section of the Department of Energy website is dedicated to self-explanatory Energy Saving.

Next week’s blog will finish the “In Six Months, We Might Lose It All” series by focusing on individual US states.

About climatechangefork

Micha Tomkiewicz, Ph.D., is a professor of physics in the Department of Physics, Brooklyn College, the City University of New York. He is also a professor of physics and chemistry in the School for Graduate Studies of the City University of New York. In addition, he is the founding-director of the Environmental Studies Program at Brooklyn College as well as director of the Electrochemistry Institute at that same institution.
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