Scientist that he is, departing U.S. Energy Secretary Steven Chu recently began answering a media question that referenced “sequestration” by talking about technologies for reducing greenhouse-gas emissions from fossil-fuel power plants.

But it wasn’t carbon capture and sequestration that the reporter was asking about; it was the automatic, meat-axe-style budget cuts set to go into effect on March 1 – and those could have a big impact on the nation’s ability to continue to move forward on clean energy, among other areas.

doe sequestration
image via the White House

His interview misinterpretation aside, Chu earlier this month did broadly outline how sequestration would play out for the DOE. The across-the-board nature of the cuts means that pretty much every area of the DOE budget would be hit – nuclear security, environmental cleanup, cyber-security – but clean energy, where the administration has played a big role, would especially suffer, Chu said.

“Under sequestration, funding reductions would decelerate the Nation’s transition into a clean energy economy,” Chu said in a Feb. 1 letter [PDF] to Sen. Barbara Mikulski (D-Md.), chairwoman of the Senate Appropriations Committee.

For example?

“For example, a reduction in funding would slow down the significant advances made in making solar energy cost-competitive with conventional forms of electricity generation,” Chu said, apparently referring to the SunShot Initiative and its wide range of research and development and commercialization grants.

The Advanced Research Projects Agency-Energy – which, coincidentally, is having its annual summit in Washington this week – has been a favorite of Chu’s in his tenure. It would be hit, too, Chu said, making it difficult to sustain investment in projects that have already “achieved significant technical breakthroughs, including doubling the energy density of lithium batteries, dramatically shrinking the size and increasing the capacity of high-power transistors, and engineering microbes that can turn hydrogen and carbon dioxide into transportation fuel.”

Another administration priority, electric vehicles, could also suffer under sequestration, Chu said: “A cut to the Departments Vehicle Technologies Program would delay the program’s efforts to leapfrog the current technologies in critical areas of  advanced vehicles, batteries, and lightweight materials, slowing American development of cleaner and more efficient vehicles as affordable as today’s vehicles.”

In a memo [PDF] to DOE employees that followed Chu’s letter to Mikulski, Deputy Secretary Daniel Poneman reiterated the gravity of the potential cuts and said the department leadership would “use any and all flexibilities” at its disposal to protect core operations.

“However, our ability to do so will be limited by the rigid nature of the cuts imposed by Congress,” Poneman said. “As a result, we are closely examining contracts, grants, and other forms of expenditures across the Department to determine where we can reduce costs. In many cases, this could mean making cuts to vital programs or curtailing spending on contracts. We will also take steps, wherever possible, to cut operational or administrative costs in areas such as travel, training, facilities, and supplies.”

Poneman went on to assure employees that any furloughs that might be necessary would come with 30 days’ notice.

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