Strike up a conversation with a random person in a Washington, D.C. bar these days, and the chitchat is likely to circle around to the $85 billion in across-the-board cuts set to hit federal agencies in March. 

With 30 percent of D.C. residents working for the government, chances are good that that person is facing a major cut in pay or possible loss of a job. 

In 2011, Congress set what some call a fiscal and economic "ticking time bomb" known as the sequester. In order to force themselves to eventually agree on a budget deal, lawmakers set up automatic budget cuts that would set a deadline for action. Those abrupt cuts, warned the Bipartisan Policy Center, would "reduce U.S. gross domestic product by roughly half a percentage point in 2013 and cause more than one million jobs to be lost over the course of two years." 

A deal has not materialized in Congress to replace the sequester. So federal agencies are scrambling to put plans in place as they brace for steep cuts. 

Agency heads are also lobbying lawmakers and warning them of the consequences of such cuts.

The Department of Energy, once flush with money after a surge in clean energy investments through the stimulus package, is already preparing for major structural changes. In a letter to leading senators earlier this month, DOE Secretary Steven Chu warned that sudden cuts would be "disastrous" to the agency's R&D programs, clean energy deployment programs, and job training efforts. 

Writing to Senator Barbara Mikulski (D-MD), chairwoman of the Senate Committee on Appropriations, Chu said the looming sequester would "decelerate the nation’s transition into a clean energy economy, and could weaken efforts to become more energy independent and energy secure."

Here's how Chu described how the office of Renewable Energy and Energy Efficiency would be impacted:

The Department of Energy works across energy sectors to reduce the cost and speed the adoption of clean energy technologies. These efforts range from cost-competitive high-efficiency solar installations to carbon capture and storage to next generation biofuels and high-efficiency vehicle technologies. 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. For example, a reduction in funding would slow growth down the significant advances made in making solar energy cost-competitive with conventional forms of electricity generation, as well as cut funding for solar industry job training that is targeted at military veterans and provided to 261 community colleges.

It would also hinder U.S. innovation as global markets for solar energy continue to grow rapidly and become more competitive. In addition, a cut to the Department’s Vehicle Technologies Program would delay the program’s efforts to leapfrog the current technologies in critical areas of advanced vehicles, batteries, and lightweight materials, slowing American development of cleaner and more efficient vehicles as affordable as today’s vehicles. Reducing the cost of manufacturing these clean energy technologies is a key goal of the Administration’s efforts and sequestration would negatively impact our Advanced Manufacturing program by delaying initiation of 2-3 industrial research and development project co-investments for at least a year or requiring shutting down a Manufacturing Demonstration Facility for 6-8 months.

Further, the Department of Energy provides assistance to low-income families by making their homes more energy efficient through funding provided by States, territories, and tribes. Funding reductions under sequestration will reduce by more than a thousand the number of homes that would be weatherized in FY 2013 and could result in the unemployment of 1,200 skilled weatherization professionals. Reductions in the magnitude associated with sequestration likely would also threaten the ongoing viability of some State programs delivering these home efficiency upgrades, closing the associated training centers, with a concurrent loss of professional retrofit certification capability.

In just four years Advanced Research Projects Agency – Energy (ARPA-E) projects have achieved significant technical breakthroughs, including doubling the energy density of lithium batteries, dramatically shrinking the size and increasing the capacity of high-power transistors, and engineering microbes that can turn hydrogen and carbon dioxide into transportation fuel. Reduced funding in the clean energy area would scale back the Department’s ability to spur such accomplishments, slowing progress toward a transformed, 21st Century energy sector.

The Department works to improve the security and reliability of the Nation’s electrical grid by working with utilities and transmission and distribution companies to reduce risk of impacts from natural disasters, cyber attacks, and other human-generated events. Reduced funding would scale back these efforts, including research to detect and mitigate cyber attacks and monitoring of space weather events through deployment of technology and facilitating information sharing within the electricity sector on best practices for protection and/or mitigation when such solar flares occur.

Chu also outlined the impact to government labs doing basic research and development:

DOE’s Office of Science is the largest supporter of the physical sciences in the United States and the operator of 10 world-class national laboratories. Funding cuts to DOE’s basic science mission would be severe. First, operations at numerous facilities would be curtailed, potentially impacting more than 25,000 researchers and operations personnel who rely on these facilities to make advances both in basic science and in developing advanced commercial technologies. Second, sequestration would cause schedule delays and increased costs for new construction of user facilities throughout the Office of Science that are poised to contribute significantly to many ares of our understanding of nature. Finally, research grants would need to be reduced both in number and size affecting the researchers at our national laboratories and at universities around the country; the pipeline of support for graduate student and post-graduate research fellowships would be constricted in a way that hurts our long-term economic and technological competitiveness.

Both parties generally agree that the sequester would be a bad thing. But with still no deal in sight, the Department of Energy and other agencies are issuing their last-minute pleas to Congress.

You can read the full letter here.

Tags: budget, congress, department of energy, politics, sequester, solar, stimulus, transportation