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Scientists Concerned For Future Of National Labs As Rick Perry Seeks Top Energy Post

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This solar panel from 1980 is one of the oldest in National Renewable Energy Laboratory's Outdoor Test Facility. Skepticism about climate change under the Trump administration could threaten funding.
Grace Hood, Colorado Public Radio
This solar panel from 1980 is one of the oldest in National Renewable Energy Laboratory's Outdoor Test Facility. Skepticism about climate change under the Trump administration could threaten funding.

When a solar company wants to test new technology, they bring their panels to the National Renewable Energy Lab near Denver. It's a place where federal scientists can measure how powerful and long-lasting solar panels are, so consumers know what they are buying.

"A lot of times maybe people don't even know how to evaluate new technologies appropriately. And so we have a lot of insight and knowledge into the market that can help with some of those decisions," lab engineer Chris Deline explained.

It's just one of the Department of Energy's 17 national laboratories, where research is wide-ranging — from fossil fuel-based energy, to understanding dark matter in the universe. Under the Obama administration, research and development dollars flowed into renewable energy.

There is concern over the future of the labs as President-elect Donald Trump's pick for energy secretary, former Texas Gov. Rick Perry, takes the hot seat at his confirmation hearing before the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee on Thursday morning. Perry infamously called for the department's elimination while running for the Republican presidential nomination in 2012, and Trump and Perry have at times questioned climate science.

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Appearing at Saint Anselm College in Manchester, N.H., as a presidential candidate in 2011, Perry said, "The issue of global warming has been politicized. I think there are a substantial number of scientists who have manipulated data so that they will have dollars rolling into their projects."

Perry doesn't have a background in science, but Ken Kimmell with the Union of Concerned Scientists said that's not the issue: "We do have a concern that a secretary who doesn't fundamentally accept the science of climate change isn't necessarily going to direct the assets of the Department of Energy towards advancing that mission."

On the other hand, Kimmell noted that wind energy took off during Rick Perry's three terms as Texas governor between 2000 and 2015. It was part of Perry's "all of the above" energy approach.

In one of his last public appearances, outgoing Energy Secretary Ernest Moniz stressed the importance of clean energy research. "I think we have an innovation edge compared to most," Moniz said. "But we can certainly lose it if we don't keep this focus. And that will lead to lost market share. That will lead to lost jobs."

Then there was that controversial questionnaire — the Trump transition team wanted the names of Department of Energy workers who attended climate change meetings. Moniz refused, and Trump's team backed away.

Last week, Moniz announced tougher measures for Department of Energy scientists to protect them from political meddling.

Copyright 2017 Colorado Public Radio. To see more, visit Colorado Public Radio.