New fridges are 20% bigger than the ones you’d find in American homes 40 years ago, but they also use four times less energy, saving the average family $150 per year. And new fridges don’t spew harmful, ozone-depleting gasses like their older counterparts.
You can thank government-sponsored research and development (R&D) for your great new fridge. Without federally-funded research in the 1980s and 90s, refrigerators may still be one of the biggest energy hogs in our homes today. But despite Donald Trump's pledges to help ordinary families, the President's proposed slashing science and clean energy research in the budget his administration released last week.
Trump’s budget proposes cutting funding for federal agencies fighting climate change and innovating new energy technologies across the board. At the Department of Energy (DOE), the largest funder of discovery science and clean energy innovation in the country, Trump proposes cutting these efforts by nearly one-third.
Several recent reports have recommended that we need to double or triple federally-supported clean energy R&D in order to maintain our competitive edge on the global market and keep driving innovation at home. Instead, Trump’s proposed cuts signal that the United States is no longer interested in competing for the potential multi trillion dollar global clean energy market over the next 25 years.
It’s hard to overstate the impact of DOE-supported R&D. Every major appliance in your house, the vehicle in your garage, and the widgets in factories across the country are more energy efficient because of DOE-funded work at the National Labs, universities, and in the private sector. And by making our homes, businesses, and industry more efficient and developing new ways to generate energy like solar and wind energy, the DOE is generating huge taxpayer savings on our energy bills.
It’s not just refrigerators. Today, LED light bulbs cost $2, and use 10 times less energy and last 20 times longer than a standard 60-watt bulb - again thanks to federal R&D. The savings to American consumers from just this one technology - $24 billion - dwarfs the amount spent on all R&D at DOE. Similar examples exist for air conditioners, TVs, solar panels, wind turbines, and electric vehicles, to name just a few.
Yet there is so much more R&D to do, as I learned firsthand from the scientists and engineers at our National Labs. More research is needed to make solar panels more efficient; to build bigger wind turbines; develop advanced membranes for carbon capture; to build safer, cheaper nuclear reactors, and to improve batteries for our vehicles and for the electric grid. And we need the next generation of clean energy technologies that haven’t even been dreamed up yet to keep up with growing demand. These future innovations require robust funding of basic science today.
Technology advances have the potential to revolutionize our energy sector, support millions of new jobs, increase our energy security, and spare us from the worst impacts of climate change. But they won’t happen if we slash the largest source of clean energy R&D in the country. Instead, the U.S. will cede leadership to countries like China, which are aggressively moving forward with clean energy investments.
Trump rationalizes these cuts by stating that we should rely on the private sector to fund R&D and commercialization of energy technology. But the data show otherwise. In the energy sector, investments in R&D are generally lower than in other key technology industries. Many energy tech breakthroughs take years – far longer than a typical company is willing to wait for a good return.
America leads the world in energy innovation because federal agencies can step in to make these kinds of early stage investments. Once companies have identified ways they can profitably invest, agencies then work with businesses to transition these ideas from the public sector to the private.
Trump has transformed his campaign rhetoric on climate denial into a budget document that seems to mark the opening salvo on a four-year assault on science. But it’s not all doom and gloom. In the end, Congress passes the budget, and Congress is also the key to saving R&D.
The previous Secretary of Energy, Ernest Moniz, worked hard to cultivate a positive bipartisan reputation in Congress for DOE – and it worked. Last year, the Republican House and Senate both proposed increases for DOE’s fundamental science programs, and held funding essentially constant for clean energy R&D. During his hearings, new Energy Secretary Rick Perry stated that he planned to forcefully advocate for DOE research as well.
The deep cuts President Trump proposes would stifle American innovation and entrepreneurship. It’s up to all of us to make sure that Congress realizes that energy innovation is worthy of more funding, not less.
Tarak Shah served as chief of staff for science and energy at US Department of Energy from 2014 to 2017.