Solar largely survives Trump’s savage budget

For someone who wrote a book about deal-making, President Donald J. Trump seems incapable of fulfilling his legislative promises – even from a Congress where his party controls both houses.

Take renewable energy (specifically solar): When details of his budget started leaking in March, the proposed cuts to renewable energy plans were draconian. 5.6% for the Department of Energy, which ballooned to 17.9% when other programs were considered.

31% at the Environmental Protection Agency. Advanced Research Projects Agency-Energy (ARPA-E), the Title 17 Innovative Technology Loan Guarantee Program and the Office of Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy (EERE) – reduced to shells of their former selves.

None of that happened.

While solar research did get cut, it’s nowhere near the levels Trump envisioned. It goes down from $241 million to $207 million in the overall budget. EERE lost $17 million. But ARPA-E goes up to $277 million. The National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL) funding jumps from $62 million to $92 million. And research into battery storage climbed from $20 million to $31 million – an increase that should advance this next critical part of the solar industry’s success more rapidly.

So although the numbers aren’t 100% rosy for the solar industry, the budget came as a pleasant surprise as the harsh cuts Trump promised foundered on the shoals of strong opposition. In the end, Congress decided that cutting supports to an industry that produced 1 out of every 50 jobs in the United States last year wasn’t such a great idea after all.

That hasn’t stopped the Republicans from shouting from the rooftops about the fact that they cut renewable energy programs – but their argument is a Three-Card Monte game designed to distract attention from the fact that they aren’t really cuts at all.

The “cuts” are actually cuts from what the Obama Administration had proposed, but the actual numbers compare pretty favorably to what was actually spent in the past. Essentially, the Republicans are arguing that they produced huge cuts in money that hadn’t actually been allocated yet.

Now for the disappointing parts of the budget, at least from the solar industry’s perspective:

  • The budget for nuclear energy rose from $986 million to over $1 billion. Given the recent tumult in the nuclear power industry, outrageous expenses of building new plants and perpetuating the mythical need for baseline power, combined with legitimate fears of Fukashima-level accidents, makes this increase throwing good money after bad.
  • The Title 17 Innovative Technology Loan Guarantee Program is still around, but with a new emphasis on “advanced fossil” and “advanced nuclear” projects, including a recently award for a carbon capture and storage project. The solar and wind industries greatly benefitted from the DOE Loan Guarantee Program in previous years, but as capital has become more available for large projects this program has become less significant for renewables.
  • The administration increased funding for so-called clean-coal technology in the form of a research increase for ways to capture carbon – a largely worthless program that continues the delusion that there is such a thing as clean coal.