The Energy Department spent nearly $500,000 to review 300 applications from energy companies, national labs, and universities competing for $46 million in solar energy research grants from April to August—all for naught.
On Aug. 31, under the leadership of Cathy Tripodi, acting assistant secretary of the department’s Office of Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy and a Trump administration appointee, the $46 million funding opportunity was canceled right before career-level staff were going to select the grant recipients, according to three sources with direct knowledge of the situation.
The department confirmed that approximately $80,000 was spent paying the external, nonfederal peer reviewers who were brought in to review the applications. A source with direct knowledge said the total amount spent on the review process, including staff time and resources, was nearly $500,000.
The cancellation was unusual for the Energy Department and is an example of the Trump administration’s greater scrutiny of the office tasked with providing renewable energy research and development grants.
The administration proposed the largest cut the office ever faced—nearly 70 percent in both fiscal years 2018 and 2019 budget requests. Congress, however, provided nearly $2.4 billion in funding for fiscal year 2019, the largest amount the office ever received in appropriations, besides funding from the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009.
The office also has fewer than 600 employees compared to the nearly 700 employees in the office when the Trump administration started, a department source who spoke on the condition of anonymity told Bloomberg Environment. The office has funding for 625 employees in the 2019 appropriation.
In addition, two of the four top career-level directors of renewable and energy efficiency suboffices left in the past three months and haven’t been replaced.
Time, Money Wasted
Government watchdog groups are concerned that the initial funding cancellation will deter companies, national labs, and universities from working as closely with the department.
The cancellation caused consternation from applicants, who complained to majority and minority staff in the Senate and House appropriations committees about the time and money they wasted applying.
Staffers then met with Tripodi and Mark Menezes, undersecretary of energy, who is No. 3 in command at the department and Tripodi’s boss.
Several applicants that Bloomberg Environment contacted declined to comment for fear of retaliation from the department.
The initial funding was to be awarded to up to 14 applicants for technologies to enable better integration of solar energy onto the electric grid.
Tripodi canceled that, rewrote the funding to broaden it so that projects also would be required to address resiliency and security of critical infrastructure, and reissued the funding opportunity in October for the same amount—$46 million.
Some individual applicants spent tens of thousands of dollars in preparing for the initial $46 million funding opportunity. The office emailed all 300 applicants that they would have to reapply if they wanted to be reconsidered.
“We’re concerned with the money getting out the door and being available to a broad swatch of technical experts, universities, and companies,” a Senate staffer with direct knowledge of the situation told Bloomberg Environment.
The Energy Department’s job is to be a “constructive partner” and help solve research problems, Mike Carr, former principal deputy assistant secretary for the Office of Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy from 2012-2015, said.
“You can’t the break the relationship with the research community,” Carr, the executive director New Energy America, a clean energy advocacy group, told Bloomberg Environment.
“It’s a competitiveness issue. If they can’t count on us to move this forward, then China is sitting there with a big checkbook,” he said. “There’s plenty of places where researchers can be enticed to go, and that’s the disaster for us.”
Intensified Funding Review Process
The $46 million that was initially canceled was part of up to $105 million announced in April approved by then-acting Assistant Secretary Daniel Simmons, who was in charge of the efficiency and renewable energy office.
Oversight of the office changed in the summer after Simmons was nominated to serve in the role. He was detailed to the Office of Environmental Management while awaiting Senate confirmation, and Tripodi was put in the acting role.
Tripodi had been on the Trump administration landing team at the Energy Department and previously lobbied at FaegreBD Consulting and B&D Consulting Inc. for Abound Solar Inc., a solar photovoltaic manufacturer, in 2011 and 2012.
The funding opportunity addressed four topics. One worth $46 million, relating to technologies to better integrate solar into the grid, wasn’t awarded, but three others—on photovoltaics, concentrating solar power, and solar workforce—were awarded in October.
Tripodi didn’t understand the funding opportunity for the first $46 million funding topic, sources with direct knowledge said, and so she rewrote it completely and reissued it.
“Apparently 300 applicants understood the text,” Andrew Rosenberg, director of the nonprofit Center for Science & Democracy at the Union of Concerned Scientists, told Bloomberg Environment. “The acting director should say, ‘Maybe it’s my own knowledge that needs to be updated.’ It’s very, very disruptive and frankly it’s inappropriate. This is something the career staff should be executing.”
A senior Energy Department official told Bloomberg Environment that “it was a confusing FOA [funding opportunity announcement] that was written, and so this was an opportunity for us to reissue the FOA. I’ll add that on all FOAs, we reserve the right to reject everything.”
“This is a rare instance, admittedly,” the official said, speaking on condition of anonymity. “We rely on these offices. We rely on the experts. This is not anything that is done routinely.”
Previously, heads of offices like Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy would approve funding based on a synopsis that career staff provided.
Now office heads are directed to read the entire funding opportunity before signing off as part of a management review of all agencywide funding opportunities. These are being tracked in a public database that the Energy Department is creating.
The official said the initial $46 million funding opportunity “lent itself to a collaborative effort.”
This is why, under Tripodi’s direction in August, the office consulted with the Office of Electricity and the Energy Department cybersecurity office before reissuing it to address grid resiliency and critical infrastructure.
“We saw it as an opportunity to actually elevate solar for a greater goal than just focusing on photovoltaics on rooftop,” the official said.
While Menezes didn’t review the initial April funding, he signed off on the second funding opportunity in October.
Democracy Forward, a nonprofit organization that challenges what it sees as unlawful government activities through litigation, filed a Freedom of Information Act request for all correspondence on the issuance and cancellation of the funding opportunity, and then filed a lawsuit Oct. 25 because the department never responded to the request.
The department has until Dec. 7 to respond to the complaint.
“I think there’s a real fear that applicants put all of this effort into preparing the application and then the department will sweep the plate clean again and force everyone to start over after you’ve already put together this application,” said John Lewis, counsel at Democracy Forward.
The Union of the Concerned Scientists’ Rosenberg said he applied for government grants from the National Science Foundation and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration when he was in academics: “They take an enormous amount of time from the applicants.”
The department ultimately could get fewer applicants, Carr said.
“I would suspect that some applicants will just throw up their hands and say forget it,” he said.
And when it comes to peer reviewers from universities, who are paid by the agency to review applications, “your odds of getting them back are severely diminished,” he said. “It’s not the right way to do business.”
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(Update provides more details in third paragraph on amount of money spent on the review process. )
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