Renewables nuked; nukes renewed: Bioenergy slashed 69% as US DOE budget gets detail; The Digest’s 7-Minute Guide to the DOE Budget

May 23, 2017 |

Want to understand what DOE is targeting, cutting, growing or eliminating — but don’t have the time to wade through all 2300+ pages of the budget request? Try our 7-Minute Guide.

In Washington, the US Department of Energy submitted a request for a $1.433B cut, or 69.3 percent to the Energy Efficiency & Renewable Energy annual budget, and targeted a $168.4M cut in the budget for bioenergy technologies, or 74.3 percent.

EERE is targeted under this budget request for a headcount reduction of 187 full-time employee equivalents, or 32.6 percent below the 2017 Continuing Resolution that the Department is using as its 2017 budget. Program direction is being slated for a $29.15M budget cut, an 18.9% drop..

In the Bioenergy Technologies Office, R&D for Conversion Technologies will be reduced by $50.9M or 59.5%, and Demonstration and Market Transformation has been re-named “Advanced Development & Optimization” and will be cut by $69.1M or 92.0%. Strategic analysis and cross-cutting sustainability will be cut by 54%, and feedstocks support will be reduced by 74 percent to $11M.

Baseball without Double A

It’s baseball season so we can’t resist the temptation to compare the DOE vision to a Major League baseball club which has decided to make sharp cutbacks in the farm system and is eliminating all Double A and Triple A leagues, but maintaining all the Rookie Leagues, and hoping to buy up any additional players in the free agent market.

Deep Dive in to the Data Stream

In the documents accompanying the budget request, Secretary Rick Perry and the Trump Administration focused the Department on early-stage R&D activities and said that the Department would discontinue support of any bioenergy pilot- or demonstration-scale projects in Fiscal 2018.

The reductions were part of a devastating round of proposed cutbacks, including the wind-down of the early-stage focused Advanced Research Projects Agency (ARPA-E), and a cessation of funding for the Title 17 Loan Guarantee program, Weatherization assistance, state energy program grants, clean energy transmission & reliability, smart grid R&D, national electricity delivery, NETL coal R&D, Supercritical Transformational Electric Power, Fossil energy environmental restoration. and the support for Photon Science Lab Building. The Trump Administration also proposed selling off half of the US strategic petroleum reserve.

Despite the radically reduced Department activities, the Secretary proposed to increase the cost of DOE Corporate Management costs by 24.2% and asked Congress for a 5.8 percent increase to the budget for the Office of the Secretary and a 92.4% increase in the budget for Public Affairs. Nuclear programs received a sharp increase, overall — although not every fossil or nuclear program avoided the guillotine.

Cuts of more than 50 percent were proposed for Solar energy, wind energy, water power, geothermal technologies, Advanced Manufacturing, Building technologies, hydrogen & fuel cell technologies, vehicle technologies, weatherization assistance, state energy programs, energy storage, carbon capture, carbon storage, advanced energy systems, and natural gas technologies.

Good news for Nukies: warhead, nuclear material, “nuclear survivability” spending soars

We can resist the temptation to wonder why — amidst all the budget slaughter — the Administration is boosting spending for Nuclear Survivability by 84 percent, or $20 million. And the Administration is doubling the budget for tritium sustainability – that’s an isotope of hydrogen critical to maintaining US nuclear weapons (note: tritium decays into helium at a 5.5% rate each year, spending is always a priority to keep enough material around).  Plus, $332 million is earmarked for a new program for W88 alteration. W88 is the designation for the standard US nuclear warhead.

Overall, the DOE budget is shifting from 63% defense related to 73% defense-related, and energy-related spending (as opposed to science or defense spending) is being reduced to just 11 percent of the Department’s overall funding.

The Bioenergy Technologies Office

As the Detailed Budget justification revealed, a sharp shift towards very early-stage R&D is in sight for the Bioenergy Technologies Office:

The Bioenergy Technologies Program focuses on early stage applied research and development (R&D) to strengthen the body of knowledge enabling industry to develop and deploy sustainable bioenergy technologies capable of producing price competitive biofuels from non-food sources of biomass  such as wastes and agricultural residues, and from energy crops like switchgrass, and algae. The program’s primary focus is on R&D to produce “drop-in” biofuels that are compatible with existing fueling infrastructure and vehicles across a range of transportation modes, including renewable-gasoline, -diesel, and -jet fuels.

The Bioenergy Technologies Program employs EERE’s technology readiness scale (TRL) to prioritize work within a subprogram and across the portfolio. Early stage R&D falls within TRL’s 1-3, defined as Basic Principles observed through Proof of Concept with demonstrated technical feasibility at immature or laboratory scale. Aspects of TRL 4-5 are also considered early stage when gathering necessary performance data that will reduce risk to enable industry to scale up the technology. This can mean small integrated piloting of technologies to evaluate the interface between process steps that can highlight issues that require further TRL 1-3 evaluations.

BETO is not focused on TRL 6-9, which involves prototype demonstrations through to pre-commercial demonstrations in operational environments.

3 Highlighted Programs: The Agile BioFoundry survives

The DOE writes:

• The Feedstock Supply and Logistics subprogram will support a consortium of national laboratories and industry experts at the interface between feedstock-conversion-integration, named the Feedstock-Conversion Interface Consortium (FCIC). The consortium is responding to lessons learned in engineering scale up and re-focusing R&D efforts on developing a fundamental understanding of feedstock preprocessing and the molecular deconstruction of polymers within biomass. This highly technical, early-stage R&D will improve downstream conversion efficiency and throughput, and will provide tools for the entire industry to build upon as they develop new markets for biomass.

• The Conversion Technologies subprogram will support transformative R&D in synthetic biology of engineered organisms through the Agile BioFoundry and explore the potential of new novel catalysts through the Chemical Catalysis for Bioenergy (ChemCatBio) consortium to enable industry to improve yields and selectivity of renewable chemicals and drop-in biofuels.

• The Advanced Development and Optimization subprogram will support collaborative R&D with the Vehicle Technologies program on the Co-Optimization of Fuels and Engines (Co-Optima) to develop bio-based fuels/additives with the potential to enable a 15-20% fuel economy gain when blended with petroleum and used in high-efficiency engines.

The Strategic Analysis and Cross-cutting Sustainability subprogram will analyze pathways and R&D strategies capable of achieving an ultimate target of $2 per gallon gasoline-equivalent (gge) and conduct sustainability research to identify and fill knowledge gaps related to increasing bioenergy production without detriment to food security, air, land and water resources.

The BioEnergy Research Centers

They survive in this budget proposal, but in reduced size and with altered scope, and they are slated “to be recompeted”. The budget request is $40M, down from $75M this year. The Office of Science writes:

Investments in the Biological Systems Science subprogram will provide the fundamental understanding to underpin transformative science in sustainable bioenergy production and to gain a predictive understanding of carbon, nutrient, and metal transformation in support of DOE’s environmental missions. The subprogram prioritizes Genomic Sciences research activities to continue with core research that will provide a scientific basis for sustainable and cost effective bioproducts and bioenergy production. This includes reduced scope of the recompeted next phase DOE BRCs, which will initiate new research to provide a broad scientific underpinning to the production of fuels and chemicals from sustainable biomass resources and speed the translation of basic research results to industry. The subprogram directs efforts towards advanced biofuels and bioproducts research as it closes out completed research targeted on cellulosic ethanol. Biosystems design research continues to develop the knowledge necessary to engineer specific beneficial traits into plants and microbes for making biofuels or bioproducts from renewable biomass. Investment in microbiome research continues to build on BER’s considerable experience in fundamental genomic science of plants and microbes and extend that expertise to understand the fundamental principles governing microbiome establishment, function, and interactions in diverse environments.


Changes in FY 2018

The DOE writes:

Feedstocks.  BETO proposes to discontinue activities related to high-moisture feedstocks, in-field sensors for real-time assessment of biomass quality, “and assessment of our nation’s biomass resources. Core feedstock logistics research to inform supply chain analysis and develop innovative solutions to the challenges faced by U.S. biorefineries will shift towards first principles and models, and away from demonstration and scale-up.”

Conversion Technologies. Due to the successful verification of fast pyrolysis and upgrading technology in FY 2017 funding for pilot scale work, BETO is requesting “no funding in FY 2018 for this particular technology area. Due to advances in the integration of bio-oils into petroleum refineries, funding and activity in biomass pyrolysis has been reduced. No funding is requested in FY 2018 for later stage process integration and intensification work (TRL 4-5).”

BETO notes that “while applied research for catalyst lifetime, separations, and carbon efficiency are important to bio-based processes, funding for applied bioenergy separations research will be scaled back to allow focus on higher priority areas. This will increase the time required to realize the benefits of these technologies. And the Office noted that for “routes to biobased hydrocarbon fuels and products – certain research areas will be eliminated, such as aerobic upgrading strategies and cellulase development.

One big note for universities and other research institutes: R&D is going in-house. BETO proposes that “all funding will support early-stage R&D conducted by the National Laboratories including targeted “CRADA” partnerships.”

Demonstration & Market Transformation. Co-Optimization of Fuels and Engines activities will have reduced emphasis on fuels to enable spark ignition engines, which have nearer term market introduction potential and are better understood by industry. No new integrated biorefinery pilot, demonstration, or pioneer projects will be solicited or awarded. Management of existing projects will continue to completion.

The Bottom Line

1. Let’s start with the old Washington saying, “The President proposes, the Congress disposes”. What is proposed here may differ marginally or substantially from the ultimate Congressional budget appropriation. Those affected by cuts might be already targeting their supporters on both sides of the aisle.

2. The DOE is down as far as support of early-stage R&D, and out as far as assisting in bringing forward new technologies to scale. But even more clearly we are seeing money shifted towards protecting key projects and assets — getting more focused. For example, the Agile BioFoundry has survived, and the National Labs will be shielded to some extent in this budget because of the decision to focus on funding work through the Labs.

3. Opportunities will still about from BETO, and there will still be someone to answer the phones when you call. For now, think that there will be a sharply reduced set of programs and the awards will be much smaller — as befits early-stage R&D. But it doesn’t mean that there will be necessarily fewer awards, or fewer technologies getting a hand up in partnership with DOE. However, outreach to corporate strategics is a must — given the back-off by venture capital and now by the US government.

4. As the US reduces, India and Thailand are increasing investment and the EU is maintaining spend for R&D, although it wasn’t huge by US standards. SO, there are other shores to consider for pilot-scale projects.

More on the story

The Budget Justification – all 2300+ pages, is here.

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