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DOE Budget Justification Gone Awry

The intention of the Energy Innovation Tracker is to analyze public investment – in budget documents, project descriptions, and legislation – to better understand how the U.S. is investing in energy innovation. As a resource for policymaking, the Tracker provides a critically important tool for decision-makers that provides access to detailed, transparent, and accessible federal investment data. It highlights spending from the past and the present while showing space for new investment in the future. Unfortunately the construction of the FY2013 DOE budget request poses major challenges to providing this level of clarity for agency spending.

In the past, DOE budget justifications captured office- and program-level data. For instance, the Tracker identifies that the Vehicles Technology program within DOE’s Office of Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy (EERE) invested $223.6 million in 2009, $274.0 million in 2010, and $278.9 million in 2011. Within the Vehicle Technologies program, spending is distributed to projects focusing on batteries and electric drive technology, vehicle simulations, engine research and development, fuels technology and materials research. Within each project are activity-level investments that further delineate even more specific research efforts – i.e. the Battery and Electric Drive Technology project within EERE’s Vehicle Technology program funded power electronics and electric motors R&D, as well as batteries and energy storage technologies. This breakdown is demonstrated in the table below.

Unfortunately, the recently released FY2013 budget justification from EERE deviates from this traditional format, instead emphasizing project ‘innovation stage’ over the hierarchical program-project-activity structure. On one hand, it is a positive change to see DOE pursuing a more explicit view of its clean technology investments through a prism of innovation – at a quick glance, this change appears almost like a Tracker analysis. On the other hand, this action effectively removes activity-level figures from public view, restricts detailed analysis of clean tech investments in EERE for FY2013, and limits possible trends-over-time comparisons. The new budget structure is shown in the table below.

Consequently, the reclassification of the budget structure inevitably trades informative funding details for redundant information, and less of it at that – arguably taking a significant step backward in demonstrating accountability and openness of federal budget activity. And policy-makers are taking notice. The recently released report from the Senate Appropriations Committee for Energy and Water similarly addresses the issue stating:

“Although the format is more condensed, parts of the justification – particularly the Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy [EERE] section – are nearly devoid of usable information and make meaningful analysis of the budget impossible…While the Committee supports displaying how funding is distributed among technology readiness levels, the narrative should pertain to a comparable structure to previously enacted acts to enable comparison of activities, and funding information should be displayed in comparable account structures showing at least the program, project, or activity level.” 

Under pressure, EERE produced a ‘crosscut’ analysis of its programs for FY2013, which includes total activity level data, as well as activity level data by innovation stage. While useful for analyzing the FY2013 Request, this solution still fails to provide activity-level details for FY2012, which continues to make trending analysis a challenge with no remedy.  As a result, the figures in the newest version of the Tracker for EERE reflect the FY2012 budget request values, rather than actual investment figures.

The Committee’s report directs that the budget justification for the next fiscal year reflect the previous designs, with modifications if necessary to include ‘innovation stage’ information. Even better, EERE should take a look at the Tracker database and analysis to get a sense of more useful ‘innovation stage’ breakdowns. With any luck, EERE will release a supplement to the FY2013 justification, and stick to the Committee’s advice next year.


Originally posted on the Energy Innovation Tracker, a database capturing U.S. energy innovation R&D spending since 2009.  For additional analysis, keep an eye on the Tracker’s blog and follow the Tracker on Twitter: @energyrdtracker.

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