Washington, D.C. – The Senate has passed its long anticipated energy policy bill – the first to update energy policy in almost a decade.

The bipartisan Energy Policy Modernization Act updates the 2007 Energy Independence and Security Act – both bills address renewable energy sources, but the new bill introduces provisions that incorporate advanced energy technologies. The act was co-sponsored by Senate Committee on Energy and Natural Resources Chairwoman Lisa Murkowski (R-AK) and Ranking Member Maria Cantwell (D-WA). The bill passed the Senate on 20 April 2016 by a vote of 85 to 12.

The bill updates energy efficiency standards in transportation, appliances, and buildings, and includes multiple geoscience provisions that address matters like critical minerals, renewable energy, and data preservation. The bill also includes provisions on scientific research at the Department of Energy’s Office of Science related to energy issues and provides updates on grid reliability to ensure efficient and reliable power.

Geoscience highlights in the bill

Critical minerals – The bill requires the Secretary of the Interior, acting through the Director of the U.S. Geological Survey, to establish a standard for designating critical minerals based on how useful they are and how easily they are obtained. The list of critical minerals must be updated at least every three years.

The bill also calls on the Secretary of the Interior to work with state geological surveys to identify and quantify critical mineral resources throughout the U.S. If the U.S. relies on foreign sources for at least 25 percent of its supply of a mineral but does not consider that mineral critical, the Secretary of the Interior and the state geological survey must submit a report on that mineral.

The bill would establish a DOE program to research how to efficiently produce, use, and recycle critical minerals; the bill also directs the Secretary of Energy to develop alternative materials to critical minerals that are not abundant in the U.S.

The bill directs the Secretary of Labor, working with the director of NSF and experts in mining, to evaluate the preparedness of the U.S. workforce to meet future domestic critical mineral needs.The assessment will cover: skills in the shortest supply, skills projected to be in short supply in the future, demographics of the critical minerals industry and how that will evolve as the workforce ages, and training and education programs that address skill shortages, among other issues.

Data preservation – The bill reauthorizes the “National Geological and Geophysical Data Preservation Program,” which was created in the Energy Policy Act of 2005. The program preserves the geological history of the U.S. and is administered by the USGS. It authorizes the program $5 million for each fiscal year from 2017 to 2026, which is down from its initial $30 million authorization for each fiscal year from 2006 to 2010 but above current appropriated levels.

Geothermal energy – The bill encourages the Secretary of the Interior to increase geothermal production from federal lands and asks the USGS to identify sites capable of producing 50,000 megawatts of geothermal power using all available technologies in the next 10 years. The Bureau of Land Management is also called on to identify areas ripe for geothermal development and to facilitate required leasing and development of those lands.

The bill authorizes the Secretary of Energy to do more research into geothermal energy technologies and study the potential impacts from new technologies. The Secretary of Energy is required to report to Congress within three years on the status of its research and continue to report to Congress every five years thereafter.

Potential geothermal energy sources have been identified in Pilgrim Hot Springs, Alaska. Credit: C. Pike, Alaska Center for Energy and Power.

Hydropower energy – The bill states, “the United States should increase substantially the capacity and generation of clean, renewable hydropower resources that would improve environmental quality in the United States.”

The bill also adds hydropower to the definition of renewable energy in the Energy Policy Act of 2005. The updated definition reads, “The term ‘renewable energy’ means energy produced from solar, wind, biomass, landfill gas, ocean (including tidal, wave, current, and thermal), geothermal, municipal solid waste, or hydropower.”

The bill designates the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission as the lead agency to set a schedule and coordinate necessary federal authorizations to address hydropower permitting backlogs. Incentives for hydroelectric production and efficiency updates in the Energy Policy Act of 2005 are extended through fiscal year 2025.

Oil and gas – The bill revitalizes the Methane Hydrate Research and Development Act of 2000 to conduct basic and applied research to develop methane hydrates in the Gulf of Mexico and the Atlantic Basin as a commercially viable source of energy while identifying environmental, health, and safety impacts.

Science R&D highlights in the bill

The bill updates the America COMPETES Programs under its jurisdiction to reauthorize and increase authorized levels for the Advanced Research Projects Agency – Energy (ARPA-E) and provide extra protection for participants’ proprietary information. ARPA-E’s budget is authorized for $325 million for each of fiscal years 2016 to 2018; and authorized for $375 million for each of fiscal years 2019 and 2020. The bill also calls on the Director of DOE’s Office of Science to ensure that ARPA-E programs are unique from other DOE programs and laboratories. ARPA-E must only fund projects that could not secure private financing or are not independently commercially viable.

DOE’s Office of Science is also authorized for an increase in funding – $5.42 billion for FY 2016 and steady increases for each year thereafter. The office is authorized for $5.81 billion for FY 2017, $6.22 billion for FY 2018, $6.66 billion for FY 2019, and $7.13 billion for FY 2020.

The bill directs the White House’s National Science and Technology Council to establish a subcommittee to coordinate federal efforts relating to high-energy physics research to maximize outcomes from U.S. investment in high-energy physics and support a competitive high-energy physics program.

The bill also requires the Secretary of Energy to work with the National Labs and industry and university researchers to conduct a research program to develop at least two exascale computing systems at DOE. Exascale computing systems can calculate a billion billion calculations per second.

Grid reliability

The bill updates the Federal Power Act to require regional entities to submit a report on their state and prospects for electric reliability to Congress and the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission.

The bill also calls on the DOE to enhance cybersecurity for the energy sector. The Secretary of Energy must ensure cybersecurity-related research is performed and a workforce for cybersecurity in the energy sector is created.

The Secretary of Energy is directed to support a program researching electric grid energy storage. The Secretary must help develop model grid architecture and a set of potential future scenarios that could impact the electric system to determine how best to prepare for them.

Next steps

The bill must now conference with the House, which has its own energy bill, the “North American Energy Security and Infrastructure Act of 2015.” The latter bill passed the House on 3 December 2015. The two bills have some similarities on energy efficiency provisions but also differences that may make the conference difficult. The Obama Administration is against the House bill, releasing a Statement of Administration Policy stating, “The Administration strongly opposes [the bill] because it would undermine already successful initiatives designed to modernize the Nation’s energy infrastructure and increase our energy efficiency.”

With just few months before Congress takes a recess in July, it is uncertain whether the Senate bill will be signed into law this year. Despite this last hurdle, both cosponsors Murkowski and Cantwell are delighted the bill has passed the Senate.

“The investments we make today will benefit American taxpayers for generations to come.” Cantwell said in a statement. “This bipartisan bill is an important next step for saving consumers money on energy costs, providing more options to power U.S. homes and businesses, and preparing the next generation of workers for jobs in clean energy,” she said.

Murkowski focused her remarks on the bill’s impact on Alaska. “And whether it is tapping into our world-class mineral base, the flexibility we secured for the Alaska gasline, the work we have done to advance hydropower and other renewables, the reauthorization of critical programs that provide funding to our state, the provisions we added to boost Alaska Native energy development, or the access we are providing for our sportsmen, there is no question: this is a great bill for Alaska,” she said in a statement.


By Elizabeth Goldbaum, GSA Science Policy Fellow