President Trump’s Budget Threatens U.S. Energy Innovation

Note: This member op-ed first appeared in Morning Consult on July 14.

By Emily Reichert

Just as clean energy begins to take flight in the U.S., President Donald Trump is threatening to ground it by eliminating programs which help drive research, development and deployment of clean energy. His disappointing budget plan for 2018, if allowed to proceed, would hinder not just wind and solar power advances, but a whole range of clean energy and cleantech innovations the nation needs to stay competitive, secure and prepared in a rapidly changing world.

President Trump wants to cut funding for the Department of Energy’s renewable energy office by more than 70 percent and extinguish altogether the Advanced Research Projects Agency-Energy. These agencies already have helped lower the cost of large-scale solar by nearly 75 percent over the past decade and have driven advances in better batteries and smarter cars. They’re a critical reason why you’re seeing more headlines about states from California to Iowa reaching new milestones in renewable power generation, even as average residential electricity prices stay relatively flat.

As the CEO of the largest clean technology startup incubator in the nation, it’s abundantly clear to me that the clean energy sector is one of the best ways to move our economy forward. At Greentown Labs, we have a community of entrepreneurs innovating bold solutions for the future of energy, transportation and low-carbon technologies. Our member companies are producing technologies that save money, create jobs and avoid planet-warming carbon dioxide emissions. Since 2011, we’ve supported more than 120 companies that have collectively created more than 900 jobs and have raised more than $220 million to support the growth of their businesses and their visions.

Those companies are part of a larger, growing landscape in the U.S. The clean energy sector supports more than 3 million jobs nationwide, per figures from the business group E2 (Environmental Entrepreneurs). These are high-efficiency HVAC installers and wind turbine technicians, battery manufacturers and solar energy purveyors, all working in good-paying jobs in every single state.

Department of Energy research and funding help make this growth possible. While incubators such as Greentown are expanding in number and attracting corporate investors, the private sector can’t do it alone. Big breakthroughs in batteries, for example, or low-cost ocean energy, take a matter of years, not months, to scale. They need not only the funding, but the ongoing scientific and technical support that U.S. national labs and other federal programs provide.

Venture capital firms have poured billions into clean energy companies, but they haven’t been able to tolerate the short-term risks involved with emerging technologies. A recent analysis from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology found that a VC-based model for clean energy development won’t work: government needs to help fund this research, the report says, while also partnering with private investors. Indeed, the federal Clean Energy Investment Initiative, launched in 2015, has already raised $4 billion in private funding.

Unfortunately, uncertainty at the federal level stands to rattle investors. When President Trump signals that the federal government isn’t interested in growing the clean energy economy, he unwisely discourages private funding as well. Meanwhile, U.S. cities and states, along with the rest of the world, are motivated by the Paris climate agreement and simple market realities. They will continue to invest in future solutions.

Lawmakers on both sides of the aisle recognize the implications of the president’s budget. Senate Republicans, including Lamar Alexander and Lindsey Graham, have written a letter to the president urging continued funding for federal energy research, calling it “imperative to ensuring we meet our energy, science, and national security needs for generations to come.”

As the senators note in their letter, we need to be thinking ahead—far beyond political cycles and annual budgets. Some of the advances underway now are leading us toward a cleanly powered future that seemed unimaginable even 10 years ago, but this is a marathon, not sprint. We cannot afford to abandon our progress now.

Congress needs to ensure that despite what President Trump’s budget requests, the American business community is looking beyond the immediate horizon. Congress can help by maintaining FY16 funding levels for crucial programs like the Department of Energy’s renewable energy office and ARPA-E.

Emily Reichert is CEO of Greentown Labs.