‘This smells’: Agency under fire over solar grant announcement

Source: Christa Marshall, E&E News reporter • Posted: Monday, December 10, 2018

The Department of Energy is slamming allegations that a decision to cancel and reissue a $46 million solar grant announcement this year was politically motivated and intended to steer money toward favored applicants.

The charge surfaced after DOE nixed part of a funding opportunity in April to integrate solar onto the grid, but then pulled it days before recipients were to be announced in September.

The department issued an altered funding opportunity announcement, or FOA, in October from the same pot of money and required interested parties to reapply.

That prompted angry complaints to Capitol Hill aides and nonprofit groups, including from applicants who said they wasted time and money on the original review process. Bloomberg Environment reported this week that DOE spent $500,000 to review hundreds of initial applications.

“This smells,” one Capitol Hill aide told E&E News on condition of anonymity.

There are fears the decision, which was directed by acting Office of Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy chief Cathy Tripodi, prevented grants from being awarded on merit and misused taxpayer funds, the aide said.

Another source, a Democratic House committee aide, said the issue is “very high” on the oversight agenda in the next Congress.

‘Substantial concern’

A lawsuit filed by Democracy Forward Foundation on Oct. 25 is also seeking records on the grant from a Freedom of Information Act request.

The complaint says there is “substantial concern” in the regulated community about politically motivated funding decisions and states “the public deserves to know why the department elected to waste the time and money of prospective grantees.”

Yet senior DOE officials said yesterday the rewrite was intended to ensure that grant money was being spent in a way consistent with Trump administration priorities.

The reissued grant Oct. 15 focused more on grid resilience and cyberthreats, topics that administration officials have emphasized (E&E News PM, Oct. 15).

“I take a little offense when people say this was politically motivated. It was a management decision,” said one DOE official who was not authorized to speak to the press. “We think solar is an underutilized resource … which is why we want to focus these research dollars on the critical role that solar can play to strengthen grid resilience.”

This kind of reissue does not happen often, but because of how much money was on the line, management did not want to miss an opportunity to boost grid resilience with solar, according to the official.

The department has a right to change funding opportunities and the process is fully explained to applicants, according to DOE. The official also said the solar office spent $80,000 on the review process, not $500,000.

The department did not comment directly on the lawsuit from Democracy Forward, but its attorneys released a response to the complaint this morning denying the decision was “arbitrary and abrupt.” It said the FOA was reissued to “better align the FOA objectives to the mission objectives of DOE.”

‘Really strange’

Grid resilience has been a theme of Trump administration officials who have pushed for more coal and nuclear plants and warned against cyberthreats and blackouts.

The $46 million originally was part of a larger $105 million solar award from EERE released when Daniel Simmons was leading the office.

After President Trump formally nominated Simmons to be assistant secretary of energy efficiency and renewable energy, Tripodi was tapped as acting chief (Greenwire, July 5). The Senate has yet to confirm Simmons.

There was a meeting with Tripodi and another DOE official about the grant, according to a Hill aide. Separately, some DOE staffers also said they were being asked to participate in training on writing funding opportunity announcements and were concerned there could be more oversight from political appointees.

The cancellation of a FOA was “really strange” although not illegal, said Jeff Navin, former acting chief of staff and deputy chief of staff at the Department of Energy.

“Political appointees have to be careful about being involved in grant awards to avoid the appearance of impropriety. There is no evidence that something improper happened here, but it sure smells bad. You can be sure that the next iteration of this FOA is going to be scrutinized to see what changes were made in order to figure out why they were made,” said Navin.

He and others said that energy research could suffer if applicants now decide to hold back in seeking grant money.

“If the potential grantees don’t think the process is fair, they’re going to be less likely to participate going forward. It’s an unforced error that makes it look like something nefarious is going on, and it will have consequences for DOE going forward,” Navin said.