Image by US Department of Energy.

The DC Streetcar wasn’t the only program suddenly cut when DC Council Chairman Phil Mendelson released his budget on May 30. One of the others, a fund that supports solar power projects in DC, was raided for $7.5 million. The second and final vote on the budget is Tuesday, giving DC’s 13 councilmembers a chance to make a statement about whether they stand for clean energy.

The program, known as the Renewable Energy Development Fund, gets its money from energy providers. DC law states the fund "shall be separate from the General Fund of the District of Columbia and shall be used solely" for "the purpose of making loans, grants, rebates, and other financial incentives to support the creation of new solar energy sources in the District of Columbia."

Among the programs getting money from the fund is Solar for All, which went into effect in October of last year. Solar for All aims to provide solar energy to 100,000 low-income households and to cut their electricity bills by 50 percent by 2032. Earlier this year, the DC government announced $13 million in Solar for All funding to install up to 13 megawatts of solar capacity on multi-family homes, commercial buildings, low-income single-family homes, small business and owner-occupied nonprofits.

Mendelson, instead, wants to use $2.5 million from the fund to replace $2.5 million in local dollars removed from the Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program (LIHEAP). LIHEAP is a worthy program—everyone needs electricity regardless of income—and it should be fully funded. But DC’s tax revenues continue to grow, and we can fund LIHEAP without hurting a program to provide solar energy to reduce costs for low-income families.

The other $5 million went to a grab-bag of general fund needs—the very thing the Renewable Energy Development Fund is by law not supposed to do.

These cuts came to light the same week that President Donald Trump announced the US is withdrawing from the Paris Climate Agreement. With the federal government abdicating its responsibility to deal with climate change, cities now must take the lead.

Mayor Muriel Bowser was among the more than 200 mayors who pledged to uphold the terms of the Paris agreement, signing an executive order committing DC to its terms and pledging to fight climate change on the local level. Unfortunately, the DC Council’s budget would take us in the opposite direction.

Mendelson argues the Department of Energy and Environment (DOEE) is not spending money from the Renewable Energy Development Fund fast enough, and that the fund currently has a surplus. He explained:

The fund is projected to have a $19.9 million surplus at the end of this year, and a $19.8 million surplus at the end of next year, reflecting the fact that the mayor requested to spend only $100 thousand of the surplus next year. It is not good budgeting to collect and hold monies for no purpose, so it is from the unspent surplus that we took $7.5 million for other needs.

DOEE director (and former councilmember) Tommy Wells argues that just because the money hasn’t gone out the door yet, that doesn’t mean it is sitting around gathering dust. He said,

[The fees that fill the fund] are collected and certified by the first of May. If they are not fully spent by the end of the current fiscal year, just four months later, the Council considers them to be available for use for other purposes. Even though public and private solar projects are identified and grants awarded by DOEE, due to the timing, money remains in the government accounts, based on cost reimbursements expected to be expended across fiscal years. The Council, and specifically the chair, then sweeps the unspent funds - stating DOEE can use monies raised next [year] to pay for the remainder.

The result is a loss of funds that are raised specifically for generating solar energy within DC. DOEE can look for ways to re characterize the carry-over balances, essentially hiding the funds from the Council, but the Bowser administration is committed to being transparent to the public. The Council’s action causes an unfortunate shell game that does not represent good government practice.”

Even as the Council considers cutting renewable energy funding, DC enjoyed a strong surplus this year, and the Council appears ready to go ahead with previous plans for tax cuts on estates up to $5.5 million and businesses with gross income over $10 million.

All the while, as money for renewable energy and sustainable transportation in the District of Columbia dwindles, the planet continues to heat up.