Trump official trumpets clean energy — and budget cuts

Source: Hannah Northey, E&E News reporter • Posted: Saturday, March 17, 2018

A top Energy Department official offered himself last week as a champion for clean energy, immediately following his defense of President Trump’s proposal for slashing funding for efficiency and renewables research.

DOE Undersecretary Mark Menezes, a former lobbyist for Berkshire Hathaway Energy, made his pitch to an American Council on Renewable Energy forum Wednesday.

“You have me over there to be an advocate for you,” he said.

His offer came as ACORE President Greg Wetstone noted that Trump wants to scrap Advanced Research Projects Agency-Energy, DOE’s innovation arm, and slash more than $1.3 billion from the Office of Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy budget for fiscal 2019 (see related story). EERE saw a slight boost of $120 million due to a recent budget deal.

But in a message repeated on and off Capitol Hill this week, Menezes suggested EERE research has met or exceeded goals during the past five years and suggested funding should be siphoned elsewhere.

Those “success stories,” he said, can be seen in milestones met and costs falling for hydrogen fuel cells, concentrated solar and photovoltaics, offshore and onshore wind, hydropower and non-powered dams.

“Our job is to have early-stage research and move it along the technological readiness levels, eventually getting it to where it’s commercially deployable,” Menezes said. “But once it’s commercially deployable, then the question becomes, what role does the department need to spend?”

Every penny of the budget, Menezes added, is “jealously guarded” by program offices seeking funds.

“To be sure,” he said, “you can continue spending money there, but then potentially where would be the opportunities for new energy breakthroughs?”

Energy Secretary Rick Perry echoed Menezes when pushed by a House panel this week about the fate of EERE (Greenwire, March 15).

“We’re reprioritizing where these dollars need to go, what’s the best return on our investment,” Perry said. “We’re reprogramming, repurposing, if you will. I think there’s some great celebration going on about successes that we’ve had.”

But that pitch is falling flat among clean energy advocates and former DOE officials who say there’s still a long way to go to bring down the costs of battery technology and concentrated solar (Energywire, Feb. 13).

Jamie Nolan, who recently left DOE’s SunShot Initiative, a program focused on driving down the cost of solar power, took to Twitter to express frustration with Menezes’ talking points.

“I was doing comms for #SunShot (RIP) until 6 months ago,” Nolan tweeted. “They just can’t win — can’t be too successful or funding is slashed. Effective programs are penalized for success. It’s frustrating and the messaging makes NO sense.”

And Elizabeth Noll, the Natural Resources Defense Council’s legislative director for energy, said in a blog postthis week that greenlighting Trump’s proposal to slash more than 60 percent of EERE’s funding — $1.3 billion — would leave the clean energy sector in the technological lurch.

“Stopping now would be like stopping research in home-movie technology after the VCR was in place,” Noll wrote.

“Sure, watching Back to the Future on tape felt … revolutionary at the time, but not long after that DVDs took over the market. And now we all can stream our movies without worrying [if] the tape will jam.”