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Cutting Funding for Energy Innovation Would Be a Grave Mistake

An array of solar panels in Victorville, California, March 2015. Lucy Nicholson / REUTERS

The federal budget that U.S. President Donald Trump unveiled in March has attracted intense and diverse criticism. If enacted, it would slash funding for environmental protection, the arts, and public broadcasting while boosting military spending. But one category of proposed cuts has mostly flown under the radar. The budget would strip the United States of its position as the world’s leading funder of innovative energy technologies by eliminating over a third of public spending in that field and cutting nearly 70 percent of the funding in targeted technology areas, such as renewable energy.

That would be a mistake. Without strong government support for energy innovation, the United States will fall further behind in the global race to command the industries of the future, from next-generation batteries to meltdown-proof nuclear reactors. China already dominates the production of existing clean energy technologies, and it is ramping up its investments in new ones in order to extend its lead for decades. The United States cannot afford to move in the opposite direction.

Nor is this all. Ending international collaboration on developing new energy technologies would cost the United States diplomatic leverage among the many countries that value such collaboration, such as Japan, China, and India. And as one of us (Varun Sivaram) argued in an article coauthored with Teryn Norris in Foreign Affairs last year, limiting global climate change will be “expensive, complicated, and unpopular” without new, low-carbon energy technologies. The United States will be the best-positioned country in the world to develop those technologies, unless it cuts its funding for them. 

Although the budget is unlikely to pass, public funding for innovative energy technologies is still at risk. Congress should not only protect such funding—it should demand an increase in the government’s support for research, development, and demonstration (RD&D) in the field.

Coal miner Michael Nelson shakes hands with U.S. President Donald Trump in Washington, February 2017.
Coal miner Michael Nelson shakes hands with U.S. President Donald Trump in Washington, February 2017. Carlos Barria / REUTERS


At first glance, the proposed budget appears to spare energy research from funding cuts. Whereas the Environmental Protection Agency’s budget is slated for a decrease of

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