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Budget Battle Leaves Applied Energy Research Relatively Unscathed

How did energy research do in the 2011 budget negotiations? Depends on what flavor you prefer.

The Department of Energy’s Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy programs did relatively well. Its overall budget of $1.8 billion is $368 million above what the House had voted to spend in February, although it is $408 million below FY 2010 levels and $550 million below what President Barack Obama had requested in 2011. “The actual reduction to the program compared to FY 2010 is $116 million because the bill rescinds $292 million in earmarks,” notes a Senate press release.

Cutting earmarked research efforts has been a priority for the Obama Administration and had proved difficult to achieve in previous budgets. But the House version of the bill would have meant whole programs canceled, an outcome that now appears unlikely. “It was not nearly [as bad] as what it might have been, what it looked like at the beginning of this negotiation,” says George Douglas, a spokesperson for the National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL) in Golden, Colorado.

Another winner was the blue-sky research agency called ARPA-E, a favorite of the president and of Energy Secretary Steven Chu. It will receive $180 million, $130 more than the House measure had proposed. That will allow the new entity to fund four planned solicitations next year and keep its well-paid, highly experienced staff on board. “That amount was very surprising,” said one congressional staffer.

But other types of energy research in the department did not fare as well.

Nuclear Energy was funded at $737 million, $50 million below last year’s budget. Fossil Energy received $586 million, an $86 million cut compared with 2010.

Seth Snyder, a materials scientist at Argonne National Laboratory in Illinois, says the national laboratories are still waiting to see the effects of the overall cuts. On Friday, Argonne formalized new “cost controls in staffing, travel, and purchases” related to the 2011 budget. As for NREL, Douglas says, “we’re waiting to see how EERE spreads around the pain. We expect some of that will impact us, but we don’t know.”

See our 2012 Budget coverage.