House Appropriators Question DOE’s Energy R&D Programs

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Publication date: 
19 March 2010

Key House appropriators had many questions at yesterday’s hearing of the Energy and Water Development Appropriations Subcommittee about energy R&D programs within the Department of Energy.  Even though it has been about a year since DOE first proposed the Energy Innovation Hubs, there is concern that the research conducted by the Hubs, Energy Frontier Research Centers, and the Advanced Research Projects Agency-Energy (ARPA-E) may be, in the words of Subcommittee Chairman Ed Pastor (D-AZ), “redundant.”

Members asked few questions about the overall FY 2011 request of $5.1 billion for the Office of Science, an increase of 4.4 percent over this year.  There was little or no discussion about two high profile international projects the Office of Science is participating in: the Large Hadron Collider and ITER.  Most of this hearing - friendly in tone - focused on DOE energy R&D programs, and how they differ.  Testifying were Steven Koonin, Under Secretary for Science; William Brinkman, Director of the Office of Science; and Arun Majumdar, Director of ARPA-E. All described the importance of a strategic investment in science, the spinoffs from DOE research, and their strong desire to keep the United States in its S&T leadership position.

Last year, DOE requested $280 million for eight new Energy Innovation Hubs.  Modeled on the successes of the Bell Laboratories and DOE’s Bioenergy Research Centers, the Hubs take a nimble, multidisciplinary approach to critical energy technology challenges.  When Congress passed the DOE appropriations bill last fall it provided a total of $66 million for three hubs: Nuclear Energy - Modeling and Simulation, Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy - Fuels from Sunlight, and Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy - Energy Efficient Building Systems Design.  This year’s FY 2011 request included $34 million for an additional hub to conduct research in batteries and energy storage.  Proposed funding for all four hubs is $107 million.

Many of the subcommittee’s Members attended this hearing, and none questioned the value of the work the Office of Science sponsors, or the Administration’s plan to double the Office’s budget.  Ranking Member Rodney Frelinghuysen (R-NJ) spoke of his strong support for basic research, saying that all Members of the subcommittee know how important it is.  That is in contrast, he said, to the general public, which is unaware of what the Office of Science does.  The public is likely to question, he said, why taxpayers’ money should be spent for basic research which may not lead to results for decades, when communities are being ravaged by flooding and when harbors need dredging.  Frelinghuysen touched on a very important point that is likely to impact the DOE budget outcome, saying the “Administration has put us in a bind” because the FY 2011 request for water projects is down a half billion dollars.  Both accounts are funded in the same appropriations bill.

During his first round of questions, Pastor asked about the research objectives of the Fuels from Sunlight Hub, what has been accomplished, and spoke of his concern about “redundancy” in a “time of fiscal constraint.”  This lead into a discussion of the 46 Energy Frontier Research Centers, with Pastor asking how their work differs from that at the national laboratories.  Pastor then asked about ARPA-E research and if it could be done by a Hub.  “It’s been very unclear up to this point,” said Pastor, about how each program differs.  The three DOE witnesses spoke at considerable length about each approach, with Koonin telling Pastor, “we can see a need for each one of them.”  Pastor replied that the subcommittee supports the Administration’s request, added that the Members need to spend money wisely, and said “obviously we need to make choices.”  Later in the hearing Pastor spoke of shifting DOE priorities, such as the decision to terminate the Yucca Mountain project and the its recommendation to zero funding for hydrogen fuel cell research.  This theme was also touched on by Rep. Mike Simpson (R-ID) about the decision to move away from the Global Nuclear Energy Partnership, saying “that’s why you see reluctance” about providing funding for the original eight Energy Innovation Hubs.

Other questions concerned the role of private research, coordinating federal research with the private sector, the good start ARPA-E has achieved in its recent solicitations and a conference to highlight energy technologies, and foreign competition.  At the end of the hearing, Frelinghuysen asked if DOE was shifting away from magnetic fusion to inertial confinement fusion because of the achievements of the National Ignition Facility.  Koonin replied that there is “no intention of a shift,” and said “there is a new player on the scene.”  Koonin said that within the next few years there is a possibility that NIF experiments will produce more energy than they consume.  He said the DOE “would be remiss if we did not capitalize”on this research, saying that Europe was already moving in this direction.

Pastor adjourned the hearing by thanking the witnesses, and spoke of his intention to ensure that the United States maintains in lead in science.