Obscure, unaccountable federal green energy lab targeted for spending cuts

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Photo - The National Research Education Laboratory in Golden, Colo. (Photo: Bill Timmerman, DOE/NREL)
The National Research Education Laboratory in Golden, Colo. (Photo: Bill Timmerman, DOE/NREL)
News,Watchdog

GOLDEN, Colo. - On the first day of Sequestration, a secret green-energy lab here stands to lose up to $17 million in federal funding, but that won't be enough to satisfy members of Congress who want to defund it altogether.

The National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL), home of the million dollar-salaried federal employee exposed by a Watchdog investigation, operates with little oversight and a budget of $352 million.

The isolated desert lab doesn't consider itself part of the government because money is funneled from the Department of Energy through a non-profit management group.

The problem is, according to Rep. Tom McClintock, R-CA, NREL's development of green-energy alternatives don't justify the billions that have been poured into NREL's budget since its inception in 1977.

McClintock thinks America would be better served letting the private sector come forward with inventions.

"This program is a breeding ground for green-energy scams, and the fact that its administrator is being paid nearly a million dollars speaks volumes," McClintock told Watchdog today. He says NREL will lose at the most 5 percent of its budget and calls the amount "fractional."

For almost two years McClintock has headed a campaign to defund the Department of Energy's Office of Science, Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy, the purse strings for NREL.

On June 2, 2011, nine like-minded members of Congress wrote a letter (read it here) asking the chairman of the House subcommittee on Energy and Water Development to eliminate NREL funding in the appropriations bill for 2012 fiscal year budget.

"We should not follow the President's poor planning in increasing the funding for these anti-energy boondoggles, especially at a time when our fiscal situation is so severely impaired," the letter said. "Rather, we should let these renewable energy technologies...compete equally on their own merits to obtain investments."

The letter was signed by Reps. McClintock, John Fleming, R-LA, Tim Walberg, R-MI, Doug Lamborn, R-CO, Steve Pearce, R- NM, Dan Burton, R- IN, Mike Pompeo, R- KS, Justin Amash, R- MI and Dave Schweikert, R-AZ.

The request wasn't heeded, so McClintock created an amendment to the appropriations bill. His proposed cuts would have totaled $3.25 billion, which included defunding a loan program that propped up the now-bankrupt solar company Solyndra.

A month later, that measure failed in the House, 96 to 312. NREL's biggest supporter, Rep. Ed Perlmutter, D-CO, vilified the facility's detractors with a media campaign that claimed 5,500 local jobs would be lost if the amendment passed.

In fact, NREL employed only 500 people a year earlier and today is still far short of that 5,500 figure with about 2,000 employees.

At the time, McClintock said he had no idea that the lab's director, Dan Arvizu, made $928,069 a year and had received a raise of $275,910 during the past two years. The salaries of his top two lieutenants were more than $500,000 a year and nine others made more than $350,000 a year.

"I didn't know about the million-dollar man," McClintock said. "I think it needs to be a wakeup call for every taxpayer. NREL is funded by the American people but not answerable to them."

When Watchdog.org revealed Arvizu's salary, NREL staffer Kerrilee Crosby tweeted a threat to kill Watchdog.org reporters. Crosby, who issued the threat while working at the lab, no longer works there.

The failure to cut funding to NREL and other DOE labs hasn't deterred McClintock. He will be back at it in a few weeks when Congress starts work on the new budget. It's unclear how many of his colleagues will sign on to his amendment. Being armed with the NREL salaries could make a difference, he said.

"I'm going to keep bringing it up in every appropriations bill brought to the House floor," he said. "Sooner or later, the public is going to catch on and start holding their elected officials accountable."

A NREL spokesman said he didn't know how much money would be cut due to the sequester and the Department of Energy did not respond to three phone calls and four emails.

In a letter to the Appropriations Committee, Energy Secretary Steven Chu bemoaned the sequester's potential effect on his agency.

"Under sequestration, funding reductions would decelerate the Nation's transition into a clean energy economy, and could weaken efforts to become more energy independent and energy secure, while spurring overall economic growth," he wrote.

Tori Richards is a reporter with Watchdog.org.

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