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Green Building News

Energy and Building Programs Brace for Trump Budget

The long-term impact on programs like the Solar Decathlon is not clear, but the president's proposed spending cuts are deep

Students from Crowder College and Drury University raise hurricane-resistant doors at their 2015 Solar Decathlon entry in Irvine, California. The competition will proceed as planned this year, although its fate after that remains to be seen.
Image Credit: Thomas Kelsey / DOE

A long list of federal programs that promote advanced building techniques, renewable energy, and energy efficiency would see less money under President Trump’s budget proposal, but important details on how the budget would affect a number of popular projects are still unknown.

In general terms, the budget proposal seeks to increase defense spending by $54 billion in the 2018 budget year, which begins on October 1. To balance those spending hikes, a number of other programs would see deep budget cuts, including the Department of Energy and the Environmental Protection Agency. Published reports peg DOE cutbacks at $3 billion, a 25% reduction in the $12 billion in discretionary spending that the department now has.

Among the programs that DOE now pays for are the Office of Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy (EERE) and its Building Technologies Office; the SunShot Initiative, which seeks to lower the cost of solar energy; and two design competitions for college and university students. The federal Weatherization Assistance Program, a 40-year-old program that helps low-income families make energy-related improvements to their homes, also would be phased out.

Separately, deep cuts in the budget for the EPA’s budget would wipe out federal support for the Energy Star program, which promotes energy efficiency for a variety of products, including appliances, light bulbs, doors, and windows.

The general outline of the spending plan is on the table, but unanswered questions — do the programs designed to advance energy-efficient building live, die, or exist in some diminished form? — remain. As a manager in one building program said, “We don’t know yet.”

However, officials said that both the Solar Decathlon and the Race to Zero competitions for college students are moving ahead as planned this year. Beyond that, the future of both programs isn’t known.

A huge cut at EERE

EERE programs of interest to builders look especially threatened, according to a report on Greenwire. In a story published earlier this month, the website quoted sources that predicted a reduction of 30% to 70% for an agency with a hand in many energy-efficiency efforts. The office is responsible for the SunShot program, for example, and provides about 80% of the budget for the National Renewable Energy Laboratory, a major research institution for clean energy.

For an idea of what EERE does in the residential building arena, visit an interactive map that the agency posts at its website. Grants range from the tiny $25,000 commitment to help train real estate appraisers on the value of green building attributes to more sizable investments in improving indoor air quality for high-performance homes. Grants go to such programs and agencies as the Building America Program, the Institute for Market Transformation, the University of Central Florida, the Southface Energy Institute, and many others.

Another concern is the potential impact on building codes, according to the report. Daniel Bresette, the director of government relations at the Alliance to Save Energy, told Greenwire that one victim could be DOE’s building code program, which works closely with the International Code Council to develop energy and building codes. DOE provides crucial technical assistance that ultimately helps homeowners save money, turning relatively small government investments into big energy savings for consumers.

“Without funding, DOE’s ability to do all the great work it’s done historically goes away,” Bresette told Greenwire.

Research that helps develop efficiency standards for appliances and lighting also could become more difficult as money becomes harder to find.

The National Rural Electric Cooperative Association said that DOE funding has helped it train more than 4,500 co-op board members in designing and financing solar programs, Greenwire said in an earlier article. Co-ops are on track to install 480 megawatts of solar this year, more than double the total of 2015. That, too, could be a thing of the past.

It’s still early in the process

Trump has left little doubt about the direction his administration will take on renewable energy, energy efficiency standards, and climate policy.

He is siding with conservative groups like the Heritage Foundation, which has lambasted the climate and energy policies of the Obama administration and argues that government shouldn’t subsidize emerging technologies. “Does America really need a Department of Energy?” Heritage Foundation economic analyst Nicholas Loris opined in an article published last year. EPA chief Scott Pruitt doesn’t think that carbon dioxide’s impact on climate has been proved. The president has signed an executive order aimed at rolling back the Obama Clean Power Plan, and he has repeatedly promised to revive the coal industry.

But budget specifics are a long way from being nailed down, and no one realistically expects the proposal to make it through Congress unscathed. Also, while the president and Congress control the budget, electric utilities across the country see a cleaner, less centralized power future for the U.S., no matter what happens to the Clean Power Plan.

A survey conducted by Utility Dive among 600 utility professionals earlier this year found that most believe solar and wind will play a bigger role in the utility power mix in the next decade. Eighty-two percent of those polled said that utility-scale solar would increase moderately or significantly, while 83% said that distributed generation would increase moderately or significantly. In contrast, only 2% thought that the use of coal would increase moderately, only 2% thought it would increase significantly, and 18% thought it would stay about the same. Fifty-two percent thought that coal use would decrease significantly.

Even staunch Republicans are pressing ahead with clean-energy plans, regardless of what the Trump administration is doing. In Carmel, Indiana, for example, Republican Mayor Jim Brainard is pushing hybrid and biofuel vehicles, LED streetlights, bike paths, and tree plantings to absorb carbon dioxide and create shade, The Washington Post reports.

“For a long time, taking care of our environment was a nonpartisan issue,” Brainard told the newspaper. “I have yet to meet a Republican or Democrat who wants to drink dirty water or breathe dirty air.”


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