Key GOP senators back clean tech spending

Source: Christa Marshall, E&E reporter • Posted: Friday, January 29, 2016

Two key Republicans are expressing support for doubling federal energy research as the Obama administration weighs how to enact a landmark clean energy plan announced during last year’s climate talks in Paris.

When asked about a plan called Mission Innovation, Sen. Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.) said, “I have long favored doubling energy research. … I think it fits a Republican pro-growth agenda.”

Mission Innovation is an initiative among 20 countries to double global clean energy spending to $20 billion, with the United States providing half the total (Greenwire, Nov. 29, 2015).

The initiative is linked with Microsoft co-founder Bill Gates and some of the world’s wealthiest entrepreneurs via the newly formed Breakthrough Energy Coalition, which is targeting discoveries in early-stage energy technologies.

“It’s the best way to find clean electricity if you care about climate change,” Alexander said last week about the idea of doubling energy research after saying he met personally with Gates.

Alexander said he would like to pay for the research spending by phasing out subsidies for wind turbines. The initiative might require authorizing legislation beyond the appropriations process, he added.

Yesterday, Senate Energy and Natural Resources Chairwoman Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska) also mentioned finding a way to double basic energy research, although she did not cite Mission Innovation by name. She was referring to language in a major energy package now under consideration in the Senate.

Energy bill provisions

The bill, S. 2012, incorporates language from the “America COMPETES Act,” introduced by Sen. Chris Coons (D-Del.) and Alexander to authorize a 4 percent increase in funding for both the Department of Energy’s Office of Science and the Advanced Research Projects Agency-Energy over a five-year period.

The broad energy bill also authorizes a $50 million “microlab” program for fiscal 2016 to improve interactions between national labs and communities.

Additionally, the legislation would allow national lab directors to use technology transfer funds to “carry out early stage and pre-commercial technology demonstration activities” and would require the secretary of Energy to create a website providing small businesses with information about national lab access.

Citing the 4 percent increase in basic energy research in the bill, Murkowski said, “Hopefully it’s putting us on a path to double our nation’s commitment to that research, which is going to be important.” Speaking at the Advanced Nuclear Summit and Showcase organized by the group Third Way, Murkowski said, “Innovation is really the focus of our bill.”

Murkowski praised DOE’s Advanced Research Projects Agency-Energy, or ARPA-E, which is modeled after the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency and targets energy technologies that are not ready for private-sector investment.

“ARPA-E is really pioneering … producing some measurable results, even though it hasn’t been around for that long,” said Murkowski. The program is a target for possible expansion as part of broader discussions at DOE on Mission Innovation (Greenwire, Jan. 25).

Murkowski also highlighted several provisions in the energy bill to advance small modular reactors and other advanced nuclear technologies.

There’s a measure, for example, requiring DOE to submit a report to Congress assessing the department’s capability to host privately funded fusion and fission reactor prototypes at government-owned sites. Murkowski’s panel is planning a hearing on nuclear innovation.

As innovative technologies have yet to reach the licensing process, “a lot of questions” remain about how the Nuclear Regulatory Commission might oversee them, said Murkowski.

“I am somewhat curious about the expertise that NRC will need and how they will prevent unnecessary delays that could hold back these new technologies,” Murkowski said.

Reporter Geof Koss contributed.