Environment & Energy Report

Energy Not Spending FY 2018 Research, Renewable Funds, Group Says (1)

Dec. 10, 2018, 3:47 PMUpdated: Dec. 10, 2018, 4:25 PM

The Energy Department didn’t spend all of its fiscal year 2018 funding for its offices of advanced research projects and renewables, and Congress is being asked to investigate.

The department didn’t spend 79 percent of its fiscal year 2018 funds for Advanced Research Projects Agency-Energy, the office that invests in early-stage energy technology, and 14 percent of FY 2018 funds for its Office of Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy, according to data the Natural Resources Defense Council compiled from Energy Department public databases.

In a Dec. 10 letter to leadership of Senate and House appropriation committees, the environmental group urged Congress look into why the department hasn’t spent its funding.

The Energy Department told Bloomberg Environment that it is typical for the department not to obligate funds in the same fiscal year they are appropriated from Congress. The department can carry over unused appropriations from the previous year.

The Natural Resources Defense Council is concerned because of past attempts by the Trump administration to not fund these two offices that do the majority of clean energy research at the department. The administration proposed eliminating ARPA-E funding in FY 2017 and 2018 budget proposals and cutting the renewable office’s budget by nearly 70 percent both years.

Congress rejected the large proposed budget cuts for both offices for both years.

Senate Appropriations Committee minority staff have sent informal inquires to the Government Accountability Office asking about potential impoundment of FY 2018 and prior Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy funds, a Senate staffer told Bloomberg Environment.

Under the Congressional Budget and Impoundment Control Act, it is illegal for a federal agency not to spend funds appropriated by Congress unless the president has notified Congress. In December 2017, the Government Accountability Office found that the Energy Department violated the act and intentionally withheld FY 2017 funding for ARPA-E, but didn’t send an official report to Congress because the Energy Department planned to spend the funds.

Separately, Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy leadership met with Senate and House appropriations committee staff Dec. 3 to discuss unspent FY 2018 funds and the office’s plans for making FY 2019 grant announcements about grants from FY 2019 funds, the staffer said.

Energy Department: Spending Takes Time

The ARPA-E funds usually aren’t spent in the same year “because of the time it takes to review, select, and negotiate projects,” a department spokeswoman told Bloomberg Environment. The exception would be if government grants were announced at the beginning of the fiscal year.

For ARPA-E, the Energy Department hadn’t spent 65 percent of its in FY 2017 ARPA-E funds and 61 percent of FY 2016 funds, but did spend all but 10 percent of its FY 2015 funds, the council said.

According to the department spokeswoman, $288 million of ARPA-E’s $353 million in FY 2018 appropriations is either obligated or allocated to grant opportunities, and the remaining $65 million is allocated to several grants to be released in early 2019.

Likewise, Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy typically carried 12 percent to 15 percent of its annual appropriations into the next fiscal year because of the long process of negotiating competitive awards, which can often take from six to eight months, with more complicated funding taking even longer.

In addition, the Energy Department didn’t get its FY 2018 funds until after March 23, when President Donald Trump signed a spending bill into law, meaning it had just six months to announce the grants and then obligate the funds.

Impact on Research

“The delays are concerning because they undermine America’s ability to develop clean energy innovations that can lower the cost of electricity, create jobs, and reduce the pollution that is jeopardizing our health and our planet,” Natural Resources Defense Council’s Jackie Wong and Madhur Boloor wrote in a Dec. 10 blog post, adding that the government is the single-largest source of energy research funding.

Wong is a deputy director for the council’s energy federal policy group, and Boloor is a fellow in the analysis section of NRDC’s climate and clean energy program.

The NRDC tracked the funding from Energy Department websites and public grant opportunity databases, including the ARPA-E Exchange, EERE Exchange, and grants.gov.

(Updated to include link to letter in third paragraph.)

To contact the reporter on this story: Rebecca Kern in Washington at rkern@bloombergenvironment.com

To contact the editors responsible for this story: Gregory Henderson at ghenderson@bloombergenvironment.com; Jean Fogarty at jfogarty@bloombergenvironment.com; Renee Schoof at rschoof@bloombergenvironment.com

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