Perry defends nuclear investment and cuts to renewables in $30.6 bln doe budget proposal – daily energy insider gas after eating eggs

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The budget proposal, a $500 million increase in funds over FY 2017, promotes innovations like a new Office of Cybersecurity, Energy Security, and Emergency Response (CESER) and gains for the Office of Fossil Energy. Investments would be made to strengthen the National Nuclear Security Administration and modernize the nuclear force, as well as in weapons activities and advanced computing.

The budget for the Office of Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy would drop to $696 million, down from $1.3 billion in FY 2017, with its focus shifted to early stage research and development (R&D). Overall, the department’s energy and related programs would be cut by $1.9 billion.

Additionally — and perhaps most contentious to a number of the senators questioning Perry — the Advanced Research Projects Agency-Energy (ARPA-E) program would be terminated, as would the loan programs run by the agency, which help private industry move from research to commercialization of their products.

While appreciating the efforts to address nuclear cleanup and security, Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee Chairman Lisa Murkowski (R-AK) stressed the need to maintain innovation in U.S. programs, and tied that tightly to support of the sciences.

“The request offsets them with cuts to a number of energy and science programs that enjoy strong bipartisan support,” Murkowski said. “It also seeks to eliminate all funding for ARPA-E, which is a program that undertakes innovative, pioneering work.”

Her counterpart on the Democrat side of the aisle criticized the budget request as rhetoric at a time when action is needed. Ranking Member Maria Cantwell (D-WA) said the budget proposal maintains the status quo without making progress, and critiqued clamp-downs on renewables and a proposed policy of selling off federal utility assets. That includes divestment from assets owned by the Tennessee Valley Authority and three of the federal Power Marketing Administrations: Southwestern Power Administration, Western Area Power Administration and Bonneville Power Administration.

Perry, for his part, emphasized what was being gained, not lost. He highlighted the prowess of the National Labs, the $15.1 billion going to the National Nuclear Security Administration, the $11 billion set aside for weapons activities and the splitting of the Office of Electricity Delivery and Energy Reliability into the Office of Electricity Delivery and CESER to better focus on grid reliability.

When questioned repeatedly by senators over various budget cuts, Perry said at one point, “Just because there is a reduction of a line item doesn’t necessarily mean there will be a reduction in results. I hope there is some comfort that what we’re doing is prioritizing in these national labs. Are we going to be able to fund every line item the way they were prior to the 2018 proposed budget? No. But it doesn’t mean the results we have in those national labs will be any less consequential.”

On the issue of cybersecurity, while there was general agreement about the need to increase cybersecurity in the wake of reports of Russia interference in and targeting of the electric grid, there was disagreement over the budget figure assigned to it, and Cantwell questioned Perry over a lack of risk assessment. While conceding Perry took a step in the right direction with allotment of funds to cybersecurity, Cantwell also said it was a wild underfunding for one of the most serious risks to the United States right now, and criticized asking for funds without a real evaluation.

Perry was also questioned about the DOE’s handling of the Yucca Mountain nuclear waste repository, by Sen. Catherine Cortez Masto (D-NV), over similar lack of assessments, transparency and planning. Perry acknowledged that no concrete plans have been made for the facility in recent years, despite the administration asking for funding related to it.

Perry also announced the suspension of sales on excess government uranium to help finance cleanup of the Portsmouth Gaseous Diffusion Plant in Ohio. He dubbed uranium bartering among the “most poorly designed policies” he had seen since becoming secretary, and expressed hopes to extend the suspension beyond 2018. All the same, he admitted that the civil nuclear program is in a bad way.

“There has been for whatever reason an anti-nuclear mentality. The civil nuclear business has been left by the wayside,” Perry said. “Whether it’s building new plants here, committing to small modular reactors — we’ve tried to reinvigorate that, and send the message this country needs to lead the world in nuclear power.”

The Office of Nuclear Energy intends to refocus efforts on early stage technologies like those small modular reactors, with a budget of $757 million — a cut of 25 percent of its budget from the previous year. Sen. Mazie Hirono (D-HI) questioned why funds are still being invested into such. Pointing out that other nations are investing hundreds of billions of dollars into clean energy programs, she critiqued department efforts to instead focus on fossil fuels and nuclear power.

“This budget goes in totally the wrong direction by cutting 66 percent for renewable energy and energy efficiency, and 60 percent for energy grid modernization,” Hirono said. “Your budget would weaken the U.S. in developing the clean energy technologies the rest of the world wants to buy.”

Perry said the funding was still there — $107 million by his figures — and that the focus was going to be on hitting goals in the early stages of R&D. Without denying the gains of this, Hirono stressed the need to go further. Without going further, she said, technology’s capabilities could never be realized because utilities need to know something works before they adapt it to their system.