Rick Perry predicts energy storage will change the world. Trump wants to cut its funding.

Senator questions Energy secretary's commitment to Trump's policies.

Energy Secretary Rick Perry contends energy storage will change the world. CREDIT: AP Photo/Jacquelyn Martin
Energy Secretary Rick Perry contends energy storage will change the world. CREDIT: AP Photo/Jacquelyn Martin

Energy Secretary Rick Perry hailed energy storage Thursday, describing it as the “holy grail” of energy. The Trump administration, however, doesn’t share Perry’s enthusiasm for the technology, based on its budget request to Congress.

The Department of Energy’s (DOE) energy storage program would see its budget cut by 61 percent — from $20.5 million to $8 million — under President Donald Trump’s fiscal year 2018 budget proposal. The administration’s lack of interest in funding energy storage, though, hasn’t stopped Perry from touting its value.

“The holy grail of energy … is about battery storage,” Perry said Thursday at an event in Washington, D.C., hosted by Axios and NBC News. “Battery storage changes the world, I would suggest, the same way that hydraulic fracturing and directional drilling has changed the world.”

DOE’s energy storage program is housed in its Office of Electricity Delivery and Energy Reliability, whose budget would plunge from $230 million to $120 million under Trump’s proposed budget. A House-passed appropriations bill, however, would set funding for the office at $219 million for the fiscal year.

DOE’s storage program performs research and development on a wide array of storage programs, including solid state batteries, flow batteries, flywheels, and compressed air. Gigawatt-scale grid storage would improve the transmission and distribution system, resulting in lower future investments necessary to ensure grid stability. One of the barriers to lowering the cost of energy storage is that public research and development spending in energy storage has slowed down, even as reliable electric power delivery has become a higher priority.

Another DOE agency, Advanced Research Projects Agency-Energy (ARPA-E), also funds research and development of energy storage. But the House of Representatives followed the lead of the Trump budget and voted to eliminate ARPA-E. The Senate, on the other hand, voted to increase the agency’s budget by 8 percent.

Perry’s enthusiasm for renewable energy and new technologies goes back to his days as governor of Texas where he oversaw booms in fossil fuels and renewable energy, with the state now the No. 1 producer of both natural gas and wind energy.

Texas emerged as a national leader in competitive electricity markets when Perry served as governor. Starting in the mid-2000s, the state also began a build-out of electric transmission lines that would move wind power from West Texas to major urban centers in the state. The program helped lower electricity rates and reduced emissions.

At his confirmation hearing in January, Perry talked about boosting research at the department’s national labs. He touted his record in creating a fund that made investments in advanced solar technology. “I’m a big believer,” Perry said, “that we have a role to play in applied R&D and technology commercialization.” Perry made those comments before the Trump administration released its proposed budget, which called for huge cuts in research and development at DOE.

Almost 10 months into Trump’s presidency, Perry continues to tout the value of clean energy technologies — while also promoting a proposal that will prop up dirty coal-fired power plants and disrupt competitive electricity markets. DOE announced in late September that Perry had formally proposed that the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC), an independent federal agency, take action on his coal and nuclear power subsidy plan.

Speaking at the same event Thursday, Sen. Maria Cantwell (D-WA), ranking member of the Senate Energy and Natural Resources, said she isn’t convinced Perry came up with the coal and nuclear power subsidiary proposal. “My guess is someone from the White House picked up the hotline and said, ‘You’re doing this … because we want to say to coal country we’re going to come out and save them,'” Cantwell said.

“There is no case where the administration should be forcing a regulatory entity that makes decisions on pricing based on what is called the [Federal] Power Act — just and reasonable rates — that you should mandate to them that they should charge consumers more for coal just because you believe in mandating it,” Cantwell emphasized. “That’s not fair and reasonable.”

Energy Innovation Policy & Technology LLC, a San Francisco-based consulting firm, researched DOE’s proposal and determined that its proposed subsidies for power plants with a 90-day onsite supply of fuel — almost exclusively coal and nuclear plants — could cost customers up to $10.6 billion per year.

For the time being, though, Perry remains a loyal Trump lieutenant. As part of the Trump administration’s theme of “energy dominance,” Perry mentioned a conversation he had with a girl on a recent trip to Africa. The girl told him that fossil fuels can provide villages with electricity that will benefit residents “from the standpoint of sexual assault.”

As for the proposal sent to FERC, Perry said DOE is “basically just re-balancing the market, if you will, because the previous administration clearly had their thumb on the scale towards the renewable side.”

Critics of Perry’s proposal note that grid operators have implemented rules to put owners of renewable energy projects on a level playing field with other types of electric generators. “These policies have benefited consumers by controlling costs, fostering innovation, and helping to advance lower-polluting energy,” Harvard Law School professor Jody Freeman and former Environmental Protection Agency official Joseph Goffman wrote in a New York Times op-ed. “Mr. Perry’s proposal would override this pro-market trajectory to benefit the Trump administration’s handpicked energy sources.”