House Tees Up Basic Energy Research Legislation

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Publication date: 
11 July 2016

The House will soon vote on two bills that would create basic research initiatives at the Department of Energy focused on solar fuels and electricity storage, respectively. Although the House Science Committee cleared both with bipartisan support, committee members expressed divergent views at the markup on the proper role of the federal government in supporting energy R&D.

As early as today, the House will vote on bills which would create two new basic energy research initiatives at the Department of Energy. The “Solar Fuels Innovation Act” and the “Electricity Storage Innovation Act” authorize DOE to use $150 million annually from fiscal year 2017 through fiscal year 2020 to carry out a “Solar Fuels Basic Research Initiative” and an “Electricity Storage Basic Research Initiative,” respectively. For each initiative, $100 million of the annual funds would be authorized within DOE’s Office of Science—primarily from the Basic Energy Sciences (BES) program—and $50 million from DOE’s Office of Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy (EERE).

The stated goal of the solar fuels initiative is to “expand theoretical and fundamental knowledge of photochemistry, electrochemistry, biochemistry, and materials science useful for the practical development of experimental systems to convert solar energy to chemical energy.” The stated goal of the electricity storage initiative is to “expand theoretical and fundamental knowledge to control, store, and convert electrical energy to chemical energy and the inverse [and to] support scientific inquiry into the practical understanding of chemical and physical processes that occur within systems involving crystalline and amorphous solids, polymers, and organic and aqueous liquids.” For both initiatives, the bills direct EERE to support “translational research, development, and validation of physical concepts.”

The bills have eight Republican cosponsors and one Democratic cosponsor, Rep. Dan Lipinski (D-IL). They have advanced rapidly through the House, reaching the floor only a few days after the House Science Committee introduced and approved both at a July 7 committee markup. Part of the rush may be that Congress is about to adjourn for a seven-week recess for members to attend the upcoming party nominating conventions and campaign for the November general election.

Committee debates role of federal government in energy R&D

Although both bills cleared the House Science Committee with bipartisan support, Democratic committee members argued that the bills’ stipulation that the initiatives focus on basic research is misguided. At the committee markup, Rep. Mark Takano (D-CA) offered amendments to strike the word “basic” from both bills. He noted concerns raised by DOE that labeling research as either basic or applied in legislation could be problematic, as the distinction can be subjective and, according to current White House Office of Management and Budget guidance, the activities directed by the bills could easily be considered applied research.

Takano also cited testimony from a hearing the committee convened in June to hear from university professors about advances in solar fuels, electricity storage, and advanced materials. In particular, Takano noted that the witnesses cautioned against drawing a boundary between basic and applied research:

I actually asked the witnesses about whether it is unrealistic to assert and attempt to build policy around a separation between basic and applied research. All of the witnesses agreed that such a division is nonexistent and policymakers should not try to divide these two categories of research or pit them against one another. … I hope we all can agree that such labels aren’t helpful, and can be harmful. Rather our goal is to guide and support energy research that the private sector is unlikely or unwilling to pursue. Any arbitrary barrier to that goal even if it’s well intentioned is a step in the wrong direction.

Committee Chairman Lamar Smith (R-TX) opposed Takano’s amendments, arguing that prioritizing federal investment in basic research is appropriate:

While this administration remains focused on deploying today’s technology, we have a responsibility in Congress to ensure we focus on the future. By investing limited federal resources in basic research, we can lay the foundation for tomorrow’s technology breakthroughs. Basic research is a priority of the federal government.

Committee Ranking Member Eddie Bernice Johnson (D-TX) supported Takano’s amendments and implied that the Republican committee members were being hypocritical in opposing federal investment in applied R&D for certain technologies. “As the lead democratic cosponsor of the ‘Nuclear Energy Innovation Capabilities Act,’ I know my colleagues on the other side of the aisle have no issue supporting what would typically be called applied research and development of advanced nuclear technologies, so I don’t see why we can’t be similarly supported here,” she said.

The committee voted down Takano’s proposed changes. Nevertheless, the committee approved the bills by a voice vote, and the House will likely pass the bills as well. The Senate has not yet considered similar legislation.