White House Releases “Skinny” Budget: Extreme Diet for Clean Energy and Innovation

The Trump Administration released today what is known as the “skinny” budget because of the lack of specifics, and, while this is more of a political statement than a political reality, it is clear that any program remotely related to climate or clean energy is recommended for the chopping block. Climate programs like the Global Climate Change Initiative and Green Climate Fund were expected targets, but also eliminated were popular programs like Department of Energy’s flagship ARPA-e initiative; TIGER grants for transportation innovations; the Low Income Home Energy Assistance and Weatherization Assistance Programs that pay for and reduce energy bills for low-income families; and Energy Star whose labels are ubiquitous at appliance retailers. Dozens more are slated for refocus, reduction or elimination.

Members of Congress on both sides of the aisle are saying this is “dead on arrival”, but a concern is that such a high number of programs across all sectors—not just climate and clean energy—are eliminated that it will be impossible to save them all and have the President still sign the final appropriations bills. In fact, the President has a great deal of leverage given that Congressional Republicans are eager to push to his desk both the healthcare repeal and tax reform. Congress, not the President, will pay the price for government inaction and shutdown in the 2018 mid-term elections.

So, what should we do as a community of clean energy and technology advocates and innovators? Since the agencies will be fighting against rather than on behalf of their own programs, it will be the job of Congress and all of us outside the government to stand up for our own federal government. Let’s figure out which programs have strong constituencies that Members of Congress are well-aware of and clearly support. We have to assume many of those will be restored. We find programs that industry has benefitted from and continues to engage in—and put those businesses to work being heard. The challenge will be identifying those programs that fall into the gap—that have clear benefits but not constituencies that can realistically fight for them—leaving them more vulnerable to deep cuts. Those are the programs we should be worrying about and that we will need to be more creative about supporting.

It will be critical to tell success stories, to engage everyone from grassroots to grass-tops and top brass, and to make the case that clean technology is good for the economy and for the transition into well-paying jobs in parts of the country that most need them. The private sector can’t do that alone; the federal government brain trust is crucial to enable research, development, and deployment partnerships that spur innovation and scale technology. Let’s work together to make sure the fiscal haircut does not include decapitation—that in the effort to reduce government spending we do not also diminish U.S. global leadership in clean energy.

Winding Down to Rev Back Up

As I sit at my kitchen counter listening to the needles drop off our fading Christmas tree like sleet landing on window panes, I wonder when Congress stopped absorbing water and began accepting the inability to thrive. It all still looks presentable, but with little productive outcome. So what’s a clean energy advocate to do? Perhaps stop lobbying Congress altogether and focus instead on business-to-agency and business-to-business interactions?

Perhaps there are enough laws and we need to focus instead on implementing what we already have on the books. In a way, that exercise makes us dig deep into our statutes to find out what we can get done without change. Take the EPA, for example. The agency will essentially be writing our climate legislation and calling upon clean energy innovation for solutions to our most pressing environmental issue. And the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, my personal favorite. The FERC, along with other regulatory agencies like the Securities and Exchange Commission and Federal Communications Commission, can open up markets by interpreting statute and promulgating rules that allow new technology participation. The Small Business Administration can assist burgeoning industries in navigating and interpreting existing policy. Even the Internal Revenue Service can make rulings based on statute that open the doors of tax policy for clean technologies.

Because DC is the home to hundreds of trade associations, ensuring that entrepreneurs are connected to the most appropriate and helpful trade groups can be enormously beneficial. Introducing foundling endeavors to larger companies and executives who can serve as mentors and guides along the way to development and, eventually, IPO. Forming coalitions of start-ups that can create their own nucleus of power with the philosophy that rising tides help all boats.

Thing is, we still need Congress to step in from time to time. We need laws clarified and updated. We need provisions extended and renewed to prevent new industries from collapsing. We need foundational policy for new enterprises that never existed previously and have no guidelines for operation. We need affirmation that our publicly elected officials who represent constituents desperate for jobs and economic growth, are engaged and learning and paying attention to what is going on in front of their eyes and in their hometowns. We do need Congress to act on clean energy. Not for everything that happens, but in really important ways that can help our national competitiveness through local growth.

So I will continue to work with Congress–explaining complex technologies in terms that a layperson can understand; introducing them to their own voters who are also clean energy entrepreneurs; demonstrating that federal programs can have positive and direct consequences on our economy and environment; and convincing them that taking a stand on clean energy is more of a patriotic value than a political statement.

In 2014, then, you may see me walking the halls of the GSA or the Pentagon, Rayburn or Dirksen. Happy New Year!