Then-Secretary of Energy Steven Chu visiting the Joint Center for Artificial Photosynthesis at the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena in 2012.

U.S. Department of Energy/Flickr

House reverses proposed cut to energy innovation hubs

The U.S. House of Representatives has reversed course and has now decided to fund the Department of Energy's (DOE’s) five "energy innovation hubs" in fiscal year 2018, which begins 1 October. The House appropriations committee had zeroed out funding for the hubs in the House version of the so-called energy and water bill, which funds DOE. But last night the full House passed a package of amendments to the bill, which the House has now rolled together with three other spending bills into a so-called minibus spending bill. One of the amendments, submitted by Representative Mark Takano (D–CA), restores the hubs, each of which is currently funded at $25 million per year or less.

The White House called for terminating the hubs in its 2018 budget proposal. However, Senate appropriators have balked at that and many other proposed cuts to DOE's research programs: They have called for full funding of the hubs in the Senate version of the energy and water bill.

The energy innovation hubs are the brainchild of Steven Chu, the Nobel Prize–winning physicist who served as Secretary of Energy from 2009 to 2013. They include:

  • the Joint Center for Artificial Photosynthesis at the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena;
  • the Consortium for Advanced Simulation of Light Water Reactors, headquartered at Oak Ridge National Laboratory in Tennessee;
  • the Joint Center for Energy Storage Research at Argonne National Laboratory in Lemont, Illinois;
  • the Critical Materials Institute at Ames Laboratory in Iowa; and
  • a yet-to-be sited hub on low-energy desalination of sea water, which received its first funds this year. 

Chu envisioned the hubs as mini-Manhattan Projects, each of which would bring together under one roof the various experts needed to overcome some key scientific barrier to developing or improving a new energy technology. However, he sometimes struggled to explain to Congress how the hubs differed from other DOE efforts.

The change to the House version of DOE's proposed budget doesn’t guarantee that the hubs will survive. Both chambers of Congress must still pass their versions of the budget and then hammer out their substantial differences on myriad issues. The House’s energy and water bill, for example, would eliminate DOE's Advance Research Projects Agency-Energy, which seeks to quickly translate the best ideas from basic research into new energy technologies, whereas Senate appropriators would bump its budget by 8% to $330 million. And the House would fund DOE Office of Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy at $1.1 billion, whereas Senate appropriators would fund it at $1.9 billion.

The bottom line: One note of accord on energy innovation hubs does not a budget agreement make.