Department of Energy Secretary Dan Brouillette is holding out hope for a new, low emissions coal fleet, he told reporters, after Senators grilled him on the Trump Administration's proposed spending cuts to DOE's energy efficiency and renewables programs.
Brouillette defended the president's proposed cuts in front of the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee on Tuesday, saying the overall DOE cuts, which hit non-defense expenditures the hardest, did not diminish the success the department has seen in research and development.
The Secretary touted the department's programs on energy storage as well as its Coal FIRST initiative, introduced under Trump's DOE, despite skepticism from environmentalists over whether the U.S. should build out new coal plants.
Committee-members expressed varying levels of frustration over President Donald Trump's proposed budget on Tuesday.
Congress is faced with "a budget that, frankly, sucks," Sen. Martin Heinrich, D-N.M., told Brouillette during the hearing.
ENR Chair Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska, called the cuts "disappointing," while ranking member Joe Manchin, D-W.Va., said the Trump Administration "doesn't seem to be on the same page as we are."
"This is the future, this is where we're going to try to solve these very daunting energy problems and you're cutting everything," said Sen. Angus King, I-Maine. "What possible justification is there?"
Brouillette defended the cuts last week in front of the House Committee on Appropriations. He said the department is focusing on more nascent technologies, such as energy storage and advanced nuclear, and called expanded funding to commercial-scale technologies, such as wind and solar, "inappropriate."
To the Senate, he said cuts in one department were often made up in other departments.
"If you go through [the budget] as an accountant, you can very easily see the cuts, but I think what's important is to look at the results of the work that's being done at DOE," he said.
Senators also criticized the department's lack of spending last year. "Not spending a substantial portion of the funds that Congress allocates and then trying to claw them back the next year is not following the law," said King.
Brouillette defended that spending, specifically on the Advanced Research Projects Agency-Energy last year, as a "chicken and egg" problem.
"You have to have an applicant for a loan in order to make a loan. So it's not just a matter of having the funding available to make it, you have to have a qualified applicant on the other side," he told reporters, though he was not able to give specifics on whether DOE was having trouble finding qualified applicants.
On the Republican side, senators questioned his support for maintaining baseload power, including through carbon capture and other programs. Brouillette said he shared the concerns of Sen. John Hoeven, R-N.D., around rapidly retiring baseload plants. "We cannot lose some of these facilities as fast as we have been over the past few years," he said.
To maintain those resources, the department is looking at programs such as Coal FIRST which could get some plants to net-zero emissions through combining fuel mixes with biomass and other fuels, as well as carbon capture. The program was developed under the Trump Administration in November 2018, and the Secretary committed an additional $64 million to the program in February.
"We're not there yet in terms of its ultimate development, but we're spending a lot of time and effort to try and move those projects along," he told reporters after the hearing, adding he "hopes" a new, advanced coal fleet is in the country's future.
Part of that initiative includes carbon capture projects. DOE is currently also working through nine applicants, filtered out of an initial 13, that could qualify for federally-funded carbon capture technology pilot programs, he told reporters. During the hearing, he encouraged Sen. Steve Daines, R-MT, to arrange a meeting between the department and Colstrip coal plant owners.
The Colstrip plant is one of many in the U.S. that is facing early retirement, though NorthWestern Energy and others in Montana hope to see it live out its full life through 2040.
"I'm very aware of Colstrip and its importance not only to Montana but to our national grid," said Brouillette, encouraging the senator to see if the plant is a good fit for a carbon capture pilot.