Budget Cuts Loom Large at ARPA-E Summit

Charismatic speakers, from Department of Energy Chief Steven Chu, to California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger kicked off the first official morning of the ARPA-E Summit: the annual event for the Department of Energy’s high-risk, early stage grant program. But amidst all of the inspiring words about the potentials for clean energy and a green economy, the reality that Congress might not approve President Obama’s proposed $550 million budget (or any funding for that matter) for the ARPA-E program bubbled just under the surface.

Senator Lisa Murkowski¬†(R-Alaska) was the rare speaker who actually touched on the elephant in the room during her speech. Murkowski brought up what she called “a pragmatic assessment of Congressional support for ARPA-E, given the budget constraints, we all know are facing this going forward.” She said there appears to be some strong support from Congress for the program, and pointed out that the 262 members of the House recently voted against an amendment that would have taken funding from ARPA-E. “You’ll find similar support in the Senate,” she said.

However she brought up the very real possibility that Congress could cut the budget of the ARPA-E program significantly:

The hard truth is that every program has to live within its means. Last year’s COMPETE reauthorization limited ARPA-E to $306 million in FY 2012. The President’s budget asks for nearly twice that. I think we need to put in context that many programs are never funded at their authorized level, let alone higher. So at what level Congress will support funding for ARPA-E at this time remains uncertain.

At the same time, Murkowski expressed her opinion that more support should be given to older clean power technologies like hydropower, nuclear and natural gas.

Because it takes time to bring new technologies to market, we can’t simply cut out existing technologies all together. The President’s budget tends to do that — we’ve got wind, solar, geothermal, biomass that all receive significant budget increase, but sources like hydropower, nuclear and natural gas are all inline to be cut. And if we do complete a budget this year it will reflect a reorganization and perhaps a balancing of funding between many of those technologies.

Murkowski ended her speech with: “With these realities in mind I do remain hopeful that Congress will continue its support for programs like ARPA-E.”

In a press junket after Murkowski’s speech, DOE Chief Chu said the ARPA-E program has “widespread bi-partisan support,” and pointed to the fact that the program has been successful, leading to the private sector to invest in many of the ARPA-E grant winners.

When a reporter asked if Chu had a “contingency plan” for what he would do if Congress did cut the program significantly, Chu said: “We will be working with Congress. We have our own priorities, whether we get the President’s budget or not. We will work with Congress on the programs that are the most important for the future of the United States, and will put us in the best positions for our economic prosperity.”

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