Modular coal plants and emergency response

In addition to the storage initiative, the budget includes research and development on what the administration calls high-efficiency, low-emissions modular coal plants as well as small, modular nuclear reactors.

“It’s very important that from time to time we take an objective, hard look at where we’re spending our money and determine for the American people is this the right place to put our money,” said a senior DOE official Monday. “What we’re looking for by focusing on some of the early-stage, basic science is the next generation.”

As DOE looks to coal R&D, much of the U.S.’ current generation coal fleet is facing retirement or being used less often. The federal Energy Information Administration in December highlighted a 39-year low in coal consumption.

And though officials underscored their focus on innovation, even repeating an agency refrain that storage is the “holy grail,” they also said the work of ARPA-E is duplicative. Last year, Congress funded that program at $366 million.

“Much of what ARPA-E does is being done by other offices,” said a senior DOE official on the call. DOE said some work at the Offices of Science, Nuclear Energy, Fossil Energy and EERE overlaps with ARPA-E.

The administration also emphasized the need for energy security, proposing that $156 million go to the Office of Cybersecurity, Energy Security and Emergency Response, an office created in 2018. The budget document did not mention any climate-related threats to the grid, however, an issue that utilities such as Pacific Gas & Electric have spotlighted in the wake of devastating wildfires.

While officials recognized “tremendous advancement” in clean energy technologies led in part by DOE programs, they also added that “budgets are about priority, and budgets are also about making difficult choices.” The administration’s 2020 request, which emphasizes early-stage development across energy technologies, aligns with its “all-of-the-above” strategy.

Still, as another official added, “This is our request to Congress. The Congress at the end of the day is going to determine final appropriations.” And Congress has repeatedly chosen to continue funding DOE’s programs specifically geared toward cutting-edge clean energy.