DC on T2

Capitol Corner — April 30, 2018


Published monthly as part of the FLC’s DC Perspective content, Capitol Corner focuses on one notable news item pertaining to the T2 community. The focus stems from agency publications, news sites, and DC-central organizations, with original sources, contacts, and links provided. For more information and Corner-related inquiries, please contact dcnews@federallabs.org.

Spotlight on FLC Tech Focus—Energy

Alongside the annual FLC national meeting, this month’s Capitol Corner involves another yearly FLC initiative. 2018’s Tech Focus centers on energy and its available technologies, R&D, and innovation. To quote the official Tech Focus page, “the energy system plays an essential role in driving our nation’s prosperity and security…energy R&D conducted at federal laboratories is crucial to meeting our nation’s energy objectives in security, economic growth, and environmental accountability.”

On April 11, the Subcommittee on Energy and Water Development held a hearing to review the Department of Energy (DOE) budget requests for fiscal year (FY) 2019. This hearing preceded the writing of the Energy and Water Appropriations Bill, which previously allocated discretionary spending to energy and water development. The new version will ultimately finalize the deliberated funds from this hearing.

Compared to the approved FY 2018 budget for the DOE, which found appropriation increases across the entire agency despite Trump budget-cutting requests, the new proposed request features slashes in energy R&D. In his opening remarks, Subcommittee Chair Lamar Alexander criticized this move, saying “the federal budget cannot be balanced by cutting discretionary spending…the federal debt is not the result of Congress overspending on science and energy research each year.”

A common refrain shared with Chair Alexander and our own reporting is that the U.S. has remained a science and technology (S&T) superpower, but is quickly losing ground to China. To ensure that our R&D priorities are given proper footing in the federal budget, Secretary of Energy Rick Perry was called upon to defend this rationale, which echoes the original DOE cost-cutting proposed by the Trump administration for FY 2018. Alexander assured all present that, despite what Perry and the DOE proposed, the budget “will provide the Department more, not less money, than the budget requests.”

Before we discuss Perry’s rebuttal, let’s look at the proposed budget numbers—and deleted line items. The total budget request for the DOE is approximately $30.6 billion, which is a $4.3 billion decrease from the approved FY 2018 appropriations.

  • $15.1 billion was requested for National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA) ($400 million more than FY 2018). This is in line with the Trump administration’s desire to boost defense spending, as this DOE arm oversees nuclear warhead development, production, and security. February’s edition of the Nuclear Posture Review, ordered by President Trump to reassess nuclear weapon policy and strategy, called for the development of two new warheads. The reason for their development will be explained later in this column.
  • $672 million was requested for supercomputing. Priorities seem to be in line with the DOE’s—and America’s—first exascale supercomputer. Named the Aurora Early Science Program Data and Learning, the system should be commissioned for the general research community by 2022. Its details are cloudy now—previous supercomputing ventures in the Department had publicly known system specifications. The secretive nature of Aurora might be due to the competitive landscape for hardware vendors bidding to build it, including Intel and IBM.

From here, the cuts begin:

  • First, with the proposed closure of the Advanced Research Projects Agency-Energy (ARPA-E). ARPA-E “advances high-potential, high-impact energy technologies that are too early for private-sector investment” with projects that “have the potential to radically improve U.S. economic prosperity, national security, and environmental well being.” Its closure will create significant changes to energy R&D programs.
  • Then, with wholesale reductions for Energy suboffices, decreasing funding for the following agencies. It should be reiterated that all below received funding increases for FY 2018.
    • Office of Science – $870 million
    • Office of Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy – $1.6 billion
    • Office of Nuclear Energy – $448 million
    • Office of Electricity – $91 million.

Perry’s remarks began by asserting that the $30.6 billion request honors commitments the Secretary made at last year’s hearing. The DOE stood to modernize American nuclear weaponry and waste management, protect against DOE-targeted cyberattacks, spearhead supercomputing innovation, and advance energy production.

Despite R&D not being one of the commitments Perry listed in front of this subcommittee, he addressed the success national labs have had. “I have had the opportunity to visit many of the Laboratories over the past year, and witness first-hand this outstanding work done by the dedicated workforce across the nation,” Perry said, adding that the $12 billion (over $3 billion less than nuclear investments) requested for R&D would bolster lab-to-market transition for energy innovations.  This parallels a 23-percent requested increase from FY 2017 to fund the Office of Technology Transitions, as well as $36 million for energy storage and the above supercomputing advancements.

When addressing the proposal to cut funding for ARPA-E, Perry stood firm on termination, saying it would save over $300 million in FY 2019 alone. He added that closure would be instrumental in “significantly reducing financial risk to the taxpayer moving forward.” Despite this proposed cut, Perry focused on the innovations each can still produce despite tightened financials, including $2.1 billion allocated to advancing applied energy programs, boosting research in nuclear reactor technology, and accelerating the importance of battery R&D. (Read the full transcript of his remarks for more about those and other R&D budget segments.)

The sizable NNSA budget of $15.1 billion—a figure Perry confirms is $2.2 billion, or 16.7 percent higher than FY 2017—is linked to the Nuclear Posture Review’s warhead development agenda. If this figure is approved and uncontested, $11 billion will be invested into the existing nuclear stockpile and ongoing modernization program. The stockpile’s warhead restoration and maintenance nears $700 million in proposed funding, pivoting the bulk of the budget to responding to nuclear incidents both domestically and worldwide, federal workforce investments, and other sectors not directly affecting weapons affairs.

If any of Perry’s responses seem concerning, Chair Alexander—as we reproduced above—assures that the upcoming FY 2019 Energy and Water Appropriations Bill with allocate more funding to suboffices and R&D than what was proposed here. Updates will follow in the coming weeks as we continue to demonstrate how energy use and advancement can be furthered in the U.S.

DC on T2