Trump administration releases grant money to energy research projects that meet its policy agenda

Energy Department withheld funding as it conducted review of research grants and projects.

Researchers work in a Purdue University laboratory on a Next-Generation Energy Technologies for Connected and Autonomous On-Road Vehicles project. CREDIT: Purdue University/Charles Jischke
Researchers work in a Purdue University laboratory on a Next-Generation Energy Technologies for Connected and Autonomous On-Road Vehicles project. CREDIT: Purdue University/Charles Jischke

With uncertainty swirling around the future of federal spending on energy research, the Department of Energy said Thursday it had released funding to three projects that previously were selected by the Advanced Research Projects Agency-Energy (ARPA-E) as recipients of research money.

The projects were previously chosen under the Obama administration as recipients of funding and are now the first to move forward under the Trump administration. DOE said it chose the three projects after a “review of all taxpayer funded grants and projects” that was “intended to ensure that each award applied good governance principles consistent with the new administration’s policy directives.”

Researchers were growing increasingly concerned that DOE had started withholding money for grants already approved by the agency. The Trump administration’s plans to eliminate ARPA-E in its draft budget didn’t ease concerns. During his run for the White House, Trump also promised to target federal funding for agencies, like ARPA-E, that promote clean energy technologies.

In this first round of funding releases, DOE said the money will go to projects that are part of ARPA-E’s Next-Generation Energy Technologies for Connected and Autonomous On-Road Vehicles (NEXTCAR) and Renewable Energy to Fuels Through Utilization of Energy-Dense Liquids (REFUEL) programs. Other projects previously selected to receive money will be awarded funding “in the coming weeks,” DOE said.

Rep. Eddie Bernice Johnson (D-TX), in a statement emailed to ThinkProgress, said she was pleased to hear that DOE has begun releasing funding for three of its ARPA-E awardees. Johnson is the ranking member of the House Committee on Science, Space, and Technology.

“While this is a step in the right direction, I still have serious concerns given that at least 20 additional competitively selected awardees are still awaiting notice that contract negotiations with ARPA-E can resume,” Johnson said. “I will continue to raise questions until ARPA-E’s FY16 appropriations are fully distributed in accordance with the law and its mission.”

ARPA-E is a bipartisan initiative modeled on the Department of Defense’s Department of Advanced Research Agency. The agency was designed to focus on helping the United States gain a competitive advantage in science and technology and look at ways to develop technologies that would provide economic, security, and environmental benefits.

Based on its review, DOE determined that projects associated with the NEXTCAR and REFUEL programs are consistent with Trump’s policy positions. The NEXTCAR projects “will take advantage of the increasingly complex and connected systems in today’s — and tomorrow’s — cars and trucks to drastically improve their energy efficiency, with a goal of reducing individual vehicle energy usage by 20 percent,” DOE said. The REFUEL projects will use water, molecules from the air, and electricity from renewable sources to produce high-energy liquid fuels for transportation and other uses, the department said.

DOE said ARPA-E will honor its commitment to provide $5 million in funding to a Purdue University heavy-duty diesel truck project. Researchers are focusing on transmission and engine optimization; more efficient maintenance of exhaust after-treatment system; and cloud-based remote engine and transmission re-calibration.

As part of the REFUEL program, ARPA-E will provide $3.1 million to a research team at FuelCell Energy Inc. that is building a reversible electrochemical cell to produce ammonia from nitrogen and water or consume ammonia to generate electricity. If successful, the project will lead to lower feedstock costs by avoiding the need for separate hydrogen production due to its use of water.

ARPA-E funding also will got to a SAFCell Inc. ammonia project. The $3 million in funding will help the SAFCell team build a high-pressure stack designed to generate hydrogen from ammonia, purify it, and pressurize it in a single device. If successful, the new technology would simplify the infrastructure required to get hydrogen fuel to refueling stations and store it there.

Trump’s full fiscal year 2018 budget — set to be released Tuesday — is expected to include drastic cuts in spending on clean energy research and environmental protection. Many of the president’s fellow Republicans, though, are not fully supportive of these cuts.

A group of six Republican senators wrote a letter to Trump on Thursday urging him to continue to invest in several DOE research and development programs, including ARPA-E and the Office of Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy.