Dr. Hannah Schlaerth, Office of Clean Energy Demonstrations, Clearing the Air with the Clean Energy Corps

This series of interviews spotlights scientists working across the country to implement the Department of Energy’s massive efforts to transition the country to clean energy, and improve equity and address climate injustice along the way. The Federation’s clean energy workforce report discusses the challenges and opportunities associated with ramping up this dynamic, in-demand workforce. These interviews have been edited for length and do not necessarily reflect the views of the DOE.

Dr. Hannah Schlaerth’s passion for applied research on climate change was sparked in university, and after completing a PhD in environmental engineering, she joined the DOE’s Clean Energy Corps. Now Dr. Schlaerth, as a lifecycle emissions analyst for the Office of Clean Energy Demonstrations, helps assess the air quality impacts of new clean energy technologies – directly forwarding the mission of industrial decarbonization across the country. 

Intro to Environmental Science

Dr. Schalerth’s climate journey started during her undergraduate studies. As a geology major, a research project on how climate change has impacted water quality in the U.S. Virgin Islands sparked her interest in environmental science. “Because of climate change, the water quality has really deteriorated, and it’s affected coral health down there. And I just fell in love with environmental research.” 

During her PhD at the University of Southern California, Dr. Schlaerth was awarded an NSF Graduate Research Fellowship to conduct research on urban air pollution and climate change. Her work sought to understand the intersection between aerosol concentration and urban heat islands, and how the two can impact one another. As part of another project, Dr. Schlaerth looked at urban greening and how some mitigation measures aimed at decarbonizing can have an unexpected secondary effect: an increase in organic emissions.

“Even as we’re decarbonizing and reducing some of these other precursors to ozone, we can still see some increased ozone from urban greening.” 

These projects have significant policy implications, and Dr. Schlaerth was committed to research that makes a difference. Some of her research was used by the California Air Resources Board to help inform future emissions regulations.

Her interest in air quality and applied research grew – and her graduate work opened more doors. 

Making Waves in the Clean Energy Corps

When the Inflation Reduction Act passed in August 2022, Dr. Schlaerth was “really excited.” After seeing Secretary Granholm speak about the Clean Energy Corps at the American Geophysical Union, it inspired her to apply to the Department of Energy. She joined the Office of Clean Energy Demonstrations – a new office with a huge need for smart and skilled people. 

Dr. Schlaerth’s current role is analyzing lifecycle emissions – verifying that the reported emissions from new technologies that the DOE is potentially funding are accurate in practice. This work is vital to the long-term decarbonization strategies of the agency and the government – if new funded technologies don’t deliver on the emissions reductions they promise, that’s money ineffectively spent by DOE and in turn the taxpayers. Making the right decision about which ones to fund is good stewardship and smart science. 

Part of what she loves about her work is being able to see the impact she’s making – especially as someone who pursued research with real-world impacts. “When you’re in academia, you kind of get this message that the only way you can make any kind of change is by doing more research. Since I’ve started this job, I feel like I’m making more of an impact than my research did – and more directly. It has been awesome.”

For Dr. Schlaerth, the work is close to home as well. Ohio’s industrial history means that despite the lack of more visible climate threats like natural disasters or extreme heat, air quality in Ohioan cities is a serious issue. “So many of these decarbonization technologies are going to have air quality benefits in communities exactly like the one I live in. [This work] is on the precipice of some really awesome benefits.” Seeing your work at a federal level have national and local impacts at the same time is rare – but one of the benefits of working at DOE at this point in time. 

Now, because of the remote flexibility that DOE offers, Dr. Schlaerth has been able to relocate back to her home state. She finds there’s an increased interest in clean energy and decarbonization in her community now. When people ask about her job, they’re excited about the possibilities: 

“Coming back, I’ve noticed that even in the past five years people are a lot more invested in their local energy issues as well as these big bills. My Uber drivers are so interested in energy infrastructure and the grants they can get for electric vehicles.” 

But there is also hesitation. “I live in an industrial area – we still have some steel manufacturing near my apartment. There’s a misunderstanding about clean energy jobs and the huge economic impact some of these projects are going to have in regions like this.” Allowing federal employees to live where they work can not only help retain staff long-term, but can foster stronger connections and trust between the government, its initiatives, and the communities it serves. 

Despite the uphill battle the country is facing, Dr. Schlaerth feels optimistic about the future possibilities of industrial decarbonization – and especially being able to electrify some of the facilities she grew up alongside. “Electrification is a double-edged sword – it has to come from somewhere. But in the areas I’ve lived, you have huge community and indoor air quality benefits that I think are definitely worth any potential electricity tradeoff.”

Being a part of federal projects like those at OCED has given Dr. Schlaerth a more national perspective on clean energy development. “It’s really seeming like deployment is nationwide. It’s exciting to see that some communities, especially the more rural ones I grew up around, will experience the benefits of it – either through clean energy jobs or better air quality.”

On an individual level in her everyday life, and on a national scale through her work with OCED, Dr. Schlaerth will continue to make a difference in cleaning the air and decarbonizing the country.

Finding True North: How Community Navigator Programs Can Forward Distributional Justice

State, local, and Tribal governments still face major capacity issues when it comes to accessing federal funding opportunities – even with the sheer amount of programs started since the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law (BIL) and Inflation Reduction Act (IRA) were passed. Communities need more technical assistance if implementation of those bills is going to reach its full potential, but federal agencies charged with distributing funding can’t offer the amount needed to get resources to where they need to go quickly, effectively, and equitably. 

Community navigator programs offer a potential solution. Navigators are local and regional experts with a deep understanding of the climate and clean energy challenges and opportunities in their area. These navigators can be trained in federal funding requirements, clean energy technologies, permitting processes, and more – allowing them to share that knowledge with their communities and boost capacity. 

Federal agencies like the Department of Energy (DOE) should invest in standing up these programs by collecting feedback on specific capacity needs from regional partners and attaching them to existing technical assistance funding. These programs can look different, but agencies should consider specific goals and desired outcomes, identify appropriate regional and local partners, and explore additional flexible funding opportunities to get them off the ground. 

Community navigator programs can provide much-needed capacity combined with deep place-based knowledge to create local champions with expertise in accessing federal funding – relieving agencies of technical assistance burdens and smoothing grant-writing processes for local and state partners. Agencies should quickly take advantage of these programs to implement funding more effectively. 

Challenge

BIL/IRA implementation is well under way, with countless programs being stood up at record speed by federal agencies. Of course, the sheer size of the packages means that there is still quite a bit of funding on the table at DOE that risks not being distributed effectively or equitably in the allotted time frame. While the agency is making huge strides to roll out its resources—which include state-level block grants, loan guarantee programs, and tax rebates—it has limited capacity to fully understand the unique needs of individual cities and communities and to support each location effectively in accessing funding opportunities and implementing related programs. 

Subnational actors own the burden of distributing and applying for funding. States, cities, and communities want to support distribution, but they are not equally prepared to access federal funding quickly. They lack what officials call absorptive capacity, the ability to apply for, distribute, and implement funding packages. Agencies don’t have comprehensive knowledge of barriers to implementation across the hundreds of thousands of communities and can’t provide individualized technical assistance that is needed. 

Two recent research projects identified several keys ways that cities, state governments, and technical assistance organizations need support from federal agencies:

While this research focuses on several BIL/IRA agencies, the Department of Energy in particular distributed hundreds of billions of dollars to communities over the past few years. DOE faces an additional challenge: up until 2020, the agency was mainly focused on conducting basic science research. With the advent of BIL, IRA, and the CHIPS and Science Act, it had to adjust quickly to conduct more deployment and loan guarantee activities. 

In order to meet community needs, DOE needs help – and at its core, this problem is one of talent and capacity. Since the passage of BIL, DOE has increased its hiring and bolstered its offices through the Clean Energy Corps

Yet even if DOE could hire faster and more effectively, the sheer scope of the problem outweighs any number of federal employees. Candidates need not only certain skills but also knowledge specific to each community. To fully meet the needs of the localities and individuals it aims to reach, DOE would need to develop thorough community competency for the entire country. With over 29,000 defined communities in the United States – with about half being classified as ‘low capacity’ – it’s simply impossible to hire enough people or identify and overcome the barriers each one faces in the short amount of time allotted to implementation of BIL/IRA. Government needs outside support in order to distribute funds quickly and equitably.

Opportunity

DOE, the rest of the federal government, and the national labs are keen to provide significant technical assistance for their programs. DOE’s Office of State and Community Energy Programs has put considerable time and energy into expanding its community support efforts, including the recently stood up Office of Community Engagement and the Community Energy Fellows program. 

National labs have been engaging communities for a long time – the National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL) conducts trainings and information sessions, answers questions, and connects communities with regional and federal resources. Colorado and Alaska, for example, were well-positioned to take advantage of federal funding when BIL/IRA were released as a result of federal training opportunities from the NREL, DOE, and other institutions, as well as local and regional coordinated approaches to preparing. Their absorptive capacity has helped them successfully access opportunities – but only because communities, cities, and Tribal governments in those regions have spent the last decade preparing for clean energy opportunities. 

While this type of long-term technical assistance and training is necessary, there are resources available right now that are at risk of not being used if states, cities, and communities can’t develop capacity quickly. As DOE continues to flex its deployment and demonstration muscles, the agency needs to invest in community engagement and regional capacity to ensure long-term success across the country. 

A key way that DOE can help meet the needs of states and cities that are implementing funding is by standing up community navigator programs. These programs take many forms, but broadly, they leverage the expertise of individuals or organizations within a state or community that can act as guides to the barriers and opportunities within that place. 

Community navigators themselves have several benefits. They can act as a catalytic resource by delivering quality technical assistance where federal agencies may not have capacity. In DOE’s case, this could help communities understand funding opportunities and requirements, identify appropriate funding opportunities, explore new clean energy technologies that might meet the needs of the community, and actually complete applications for funding quickly and accurately. They understand regional assets and available capital and have strong existing relationships. Further, community navigators can help build networks – connecting community-based organizations, start-ups, and subnational government agencies based on focus areas. 

The DOE and other agencies with BIL/IRA mandates should design programs to leverage these navigators in order to better support state and local organizations with implementation. Programs that leverage community navigators will increase the efficiency of federal technical assistance resources, stretching them further, and will help build capacity within subnational organizations to sustain climate and clean energy initiatives longer term.

These programs can target a range of issues. In the past, they have been used to support access to individual benefits, but expanding their scope could lead to broader results for communities. Training community organizations, and by extension individuals, on how to engage with federal funding and assess capital, development, and infrastructure improvement opportunities in their own regions can help federal agencies take a more holistic approach to implementation and supporting communities. Applying for funding takes work, and navigators can help – but they can also support the rollout of proposed programs once funding is awarded and ensure the projects are seen through their life cycles. For example, understanding broader federal guidance on funding opportunities like the Office of Management and Budget’s proposed revisions to the Uniform Grants Guidance can give navigators and communities additional tools for monitoring and evaluation and administrative capacity. 

Benefits of these programs aren’t limited to funding opportunities and program implementation – they can help smooth permitting processes as well. Navigators can act as ready-made champions for and experts on clean energy technologies and potential community concerns. In some communities, distrust of clean energy sources, companies, and government officials can slow permitting, especially for emerging technologies that are subject to misinformation or lack of wider recognition. Supporting community champions that understand the technologies, can advocate on their behalf, and can facilitate relationship building between developers and community members can reduce opposition to clean energy projects. 

Further, community navigator programs could help alleviate cost-recovery concerns from permitting teams. Permitting staff within agencies understand that communities need support, especially in the pre-application period, but in the interest of being good stewards of taxpayer dollars they are often reluctant to invest in applications that may not turn into projects. 

Overall, these programs have major potential for expanding the technical assistance resources of federal agencies and the capacity of state and local governments and community-based organizations. Federal agencies with a BIL/IRA mandate should design and stand up these programs alongside the rollout of funding opportunities.

Plan of Action

With the Biden Administration’s focus on community engagement and climate and energy justice, agencies have a window of opportunity in which to expand these programs. In order to effectively expand community navigator programs, offices should: 

Build community navigator programs into existing technical assistance budgets.

Offices at agencies and subcomponents with BIL/IRA funding like the Department of Energy, the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management, the Bureau of Land Management (BLM), and the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) have expanded their technical assistance programs alongside introducing new initiatives from that same funding. Community navigator programs are primarily models for providing technical assistance – and can use programmatic funding. Offices should assess funding capabilities and explore flexible funding mechanisms like the ones below. 

Some existing programs are attached to large block grant funding, like DOE’s Community Energy Programs attached to the Energy Efficiency and Conservation Block Grant Program. This is a useful practice as the funding source has broad goals and is relatively large and regionally nonspecific.

Collect feedback from regional partners on specific challenges and capacity needs to appropriately tailor community navigator programs. 

Before setting up a program, offices should convene local and regional partners to assess major challenges in communities and better design a program. Feedback collection can take the form of journey mapping, listening sessions, convenings, or other structures. These meetings should rely on partners’ expertise and understanding of the opportunities specific to their communities.

For example, if there’s sufficient capacity for grant-writing but a lack of expertise in specific clean energy technologies that a region is interested in, that would inform the goals, curricula, and partners of a particular program. It also would help determine where the program should sit: if it’s targeted at developing clean energy expertise in order to overcome permitting hurdles, it might fit better at the BLM or be a good candidate for a partnership between a DOE office and BLM. 

Partner with other federal agencies to develop more holistic programs. 

The goals of these programs often speak to the mission of several agencies – for example, the goal of just and equitable technical assistance has already led to the Environmental Justice Thriving Communities Technical Assistance Centers program, a collaboration between EPA and DOE. By combining resources, agencies and offices can even further expand the capacity of a region and increase accessibility to more federal funding opportunities. 

A good example of offices collaborating on these programs is below, with the Arctic Energy Ambassadors, funded by the Office of State and Community Energy Programs (SCEP) and the Arctic Energy Office. 

Roadmap for Success

There are several initial considerations for building out a program, including solidifying the program’s goals, ensuring available funding sources and mechanisms, and identifying regional and local partners to ensure it is sustainable and effective. Community navigator programs should: 

Identify a need and outline clear goals for the program. 

Offices should clearly understand the goals of a program. This should go without saying, but given the inconsistency in needs, capacity, and readiness across different communities, it’s key to develop a program that has defined what success looks like for the participants and region. For example, community navigator programs could specifically work to help a region navigate permitting processes; develop several projects of a singular clean energy technology; or understand how to apply for federal grants effectively. Just one of those goals could underpin an entire program. 

Ideally, community navigator programs would offer a more holistic approach – working with regional organizations or training participants who understand the challenges and opportunities within their region to identify and assess federal funding opportunities and work together to develop projects from start to finish. But agencies just setting up programs should start with a more directed approach and seek to understand what would be most helpful for an area. 

Source and secure available funding, including considerations for flexible mechanisms.

There are a number of available models using different funding and structural mechanisms. Part of the benefit of these programs is that they don’t rely solely on hiring new technical assistance staff, and offices can use programmatic funds more flexibly to work with partners. Rather than hiring staff to work directly for an agency, offices can work with local and regional organizations to administer programs, train other individuals and organizations, and augment local and community capacity. 

Further, offices should aim to work across the agency and identify opportunities to pool resources. The IRA provided a significant amount of funding for technical assistance across the agency – for example, the State Energy Program funding at SCEP, the Energy Improvements in Rural and Remote Areas funding at the Office of Clean Energy Demonstrations (OCED), and the Environmental Justice Thriving Communities Technical Assistance Centers program from a Department of Transportation/Department of Energy partnership could all be used to fund these programs or award funding to organizations that could administer programs. 

Community navigator programs could also be good candidates for entities like FESI, the DOE’s newly authorized Foundation for Energy Security and Innovation. Although FESI must be set up by DOE, once formally established it becomes a 501(c)(3) organization and can combine congressionally appropriated funding with philanthropic or private investments, making it a more flexible tool for collaborative projects. FESI is a good tool for the partnerships described above – it could hold funding from various sources and support partners overseeing programs while convening with their federal counterparts. 

Finally, DOE is also exploring the expanded use of Partnership Intermediary Agreements (PIAs), public-private partnership tools that are explicitly targeted at nontraditional partners. As the DOE continues to announce and distribute BIL/IRA funds, these agreements could be used to administer community navigator programs.

Build relationships and partner with appropriate local and regional stakeholders.

Funding shouldn’t be the only consideration. Agency offices need to ensure they identify appropriate local and regional partners, both for administration and funding. Partners should be their own form of community navigators – they should understand the region’s clean energy ecosystem and the unique needs of the communities within. In different places, the reach and existence of these partners may vary – not every locality will have a dedicated nonprofit or institution supporting clean energy development, environmental justice, or workforce, for example. In those cases, there could be regional or county-level partners that have broader scope and more capacity and would be more effective federal partners. Partner organizations should not only understand community needs but have a baseline level of experience in working with the federal government in order to effectively function as the link between the two entities. Finding the right balance of community understanding and experience with federal funding is key. 

This is not foolproof. NREL’s ‘Community to Clean Energy (C2C) Peer Learning Cohorts’ can help local champions share challenges and best practices across states and communities and are useful tools for enhancing local capacity. But this program faces similar challenges as other technical assistance programs: participants engage with federal institutions that provide training and technical expertise that may not directly speak to local experience. It may be more effective to train a local or regional organization with a deeper understanding of the specific challenges and opportunities of a place and greater immediate buy-in from the community. It’s challenging for NREL as well to identify the best candidates in communities across the country without that in-depth knowledge of a region. 

Additional federal technical assistance support is sorely needed if BIL/IRA funds are to be distributed equitably and quickly. Federal agencies are moving faster than ever before but don’t have the capacity to assess state and local needs. Developing models for state and local partners can help agencies get funding out the door and where it needs to go to support communities moving towards a clean energy transition.

Case Study: DOE’s Arctic Energy Ambassadors 

DOE’s Arctic Energy Office (AEO) has been training state level champions for years but recently introduced the Arctic Energy Ambassadors program, using community navigators to expand clean energy project development. 

The program, announced in late October 2023, will support regional champions of clean energy with training and resources to help expand their impact in their communities and across Alaska. The ambassadors’ ultimate goal is clean energy project development: helping local practitioners access federal resources, identify appropriate funding opportunities, and address their communities’ specific clean energy challenges. 

The Arctic Energy Office is leading the program with help from several federal and subnational organizations. DOE’s Office of State and Community Engagement and Office of Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy are also providing funding. 

On the ground, the Denali Commission will oversee distribution of funding, and the Alaska Municipal League will administer the program. The combination of comparative advantages is what will hopefully make this program successful. The Denali Commission, in addition to receiving congressionally appropriated funding, can receive funds from other nonfederal sources in service of its mission. This could help the Commission sustain the ambassadors over the longer term and use funds more flexibly. The Commission also has closer relationships with state-level and Tribal governments and can provide insight into regional clean energy needs. 

The Alaska Municipal League (AML) brings additional value as a partner; its role in supporting local governments across Alaska gives it a strong sense of community strengths and needs. AML will recruit, assess, and identify the 12 ambassadors and coordinate program logistics and travel for programming. Identifying the right candidates for the program requires in-depth knowledge of Alaskan communities, including more rural and remote ones. 

For its own part, the AEO will provide the content and technical expertise for the program. DOE continues to host an incredible wealth of subject matter knowledge on cutting-edge clean energy technologies, and its leadership in this area combined with the local understanding and administration by AML and Denali Commission will help the Arctic Energy Ambassadors succeed in the years to come. 

In all, strong local and regional partners, diverse funding sources and flexible mechanisms for delivering it, and clear goals for community navigator programs are key for successful administration. The Arctic Energy Ambassadors represents one model that other agencies can look to for success. 

Case study: SCEP’s Community Energy Fellows Program

DOE’s State and Community Energy Programs office has been working tirelessly to implement BIL and IRA, and last year as part of those efforts it introduced the Community Energy Fellows Program (CEFP). 

This program aims to support local and Tribal governments with their projects funded by the Energy Efficiency and Conservation Block Grants. CEFP matches midcareer energy professionals with host organizations to provide support and technical assistance on projects as well as learn more about how clean energy development happens. 

Because the program has a much broader scope than the Arctic Energy Fellows, it solicits and assesses host institutions as well as Fellows. This allows SCEP to more effectively match the two based on issue areas, expertise, and specific skillsets. This structure allows for multiple community navigators – the host institution understands the needs of its community and the Fellow brings expertise in federal programs and clean energy development. Both parties gain from the fellowship. 

In addition, SCEP has added another resource: Clean Energy Coaches, who provide another layer of expertise to the host institution and the Fellow. These coaches will help develop the Fellows’ skills as they work to support the host institution and community. 

Some of the awards are already being rolled out, with a second call for host institutions and Fellows out now. Communities in southern Maine participating in the program are optimistic about the support that navigators will provide – and their project leads have a keen sense of the challenges in their communities. 

As the program continues to grow, it can provide a great opportunity for other agencies and offices to learn from its success.

State of the Federal Clean Energy Workforce

How Improved Talent Practices Can Help the Department of Energy Meet the Moment

This report aims to provide a snapshot of clean energy talent at the Department of Energy and its surrounding orbit: the challenges, successes, and opportunities that the workforce is experiencing at this once-in-a-generation moment.

To compile the findings in this report, FAS worked with nonprofit and philanthropic organizations, government agencies, advocacy and workforce coalitions, and private companies over the last year. We held events, including information sessions, recruitment events, and convenings; we conducted interviews with more than 25 experts from the public and private sector; we developed recommendations for improving talent acquisition in government, and helped agencies find the right talent for their needs.

Overall, we found that DOE has made significant progress towards its talent and implementation goals, taking advantage of the current momentum to bring in new employees and roll out new programs to accelerate the clean energy transition. The agency has made smart use of flexible hiring mechanisms like the Direct Hire Authority and Intergovernmental Personnel Act (IPA) agreements, ramped up recruitment to meet current capacity needs, and worked with partners to bring in high-quality talent.

But there are also ways to build on DOE’s current approaches. We offer recommendations for expanding the use of flexible hiring mechanisms: through expanding IPA eligibility to organizations vetted by other agencies, holding trainings for program offices through the Office of the Chief Human Capital Officer, and asking Congress to increase funding for human capital resources. Another recommendation encourages DOE to review its use to date of the Clean Energy Corps’ Direct Hire Authority and identify areas for improvement. We also propose ways to build on DOE’s recruitment successes: by partnering with energy sector affinity groups and clean energy membership networks to share opportunities; and by building closer relationships with universities and colleges to engage early career talent.

Some of these findings and recommendations are pulled from previous memos and reports, but many are new recommendations based on our experiences working and interacting with partners within the ecosystem over the past year. The goal of this report is to help federal and non-federal actors in the clean energy ecosystem grow talent and prepare for the challenges in clean energy in the coming decades.

The Moment

The climate crisis is not just a looming threat–it’s already here, affecting the lives of American citizens. The federal government has taken a central role in climate mitigation and adaptation, especially with the recent passage of several pieces of legislation. The bipartisan Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act (IIJA), the CHIPS and Science Act, and the Inflation Reduction Act (IRA) all provide levers for federal agencies to address the crisis and reduce emissions.

The Department of Energy (DOE) is leading the charge and is the target of much of the funding from the above bills. The legislation provides DOE over $97 billion dollars of funding aimed at commercializing and deploying new clean energy technologies, expanding energy efficiency in homes and businesses, and decreasing emissions in a range of industries.

These are robust and much-needed investments in federal agencies, and the effects will ripple out across the whole economy. The Energy Futures Initiative, in a recent report, estimated that IRA investments will lead to 1.46 million more jobs over the next ten years than there would have been without the bill. Moreover, these jobs will be focused in key industries, like construction, manufacturing, and electric utilities.

But those jobs won’t magically appear–and the IIJA and IRA funding won’t magically be spent. That amount of money would be overwhelming for any large organization, and initiatives and benefits will take time to manifest.

When it passed these two bills, Congress recognized that the Department of Energy–and the federal government more broadly– would need new tools to use these new resources effectively. That is why it included new funding and expanded hiring authorities to allow the agencies to quickly find and hire expert staff. 

Now it is up to DOE to find the subject matter expertise, talent, partnerships, and cross-sector knowledge sharing from the larger clean energy ecosystem it needs to execute on Congress’s incredibly ambitious goals. Perhaps the most critical factor in DOE’s success will be ensuring that the agency has the staff it needs to meet the moment and implement the bold targets established in the recent legislation.

Why Talent?

To implement policy effectively and spend taxpayer dollars efficiently, the federal government needs people. Investing in a robust talent pipeline is important for all agencies, especially given that only about 8% of federal employees are under 30, and at DOE only 4% are under 30. Building this pipeline is critical for the clean energy transition that’s already underway–not only for not the federal government, but for the entire ecosystem. In order to meet clean energy deployment estimates across the country, clean energy jobs will need to increase threefold by 2025 and almost sixfold by 2030 from 2020 jobs numbers. This job growth will require cross-sector investment in workforce training and education, innovation ecosystems, and research and development of new technologies. Private firms, venture capital, and the civil sector can all play a role, but as the country’s largest employer, the government will need to lead the way.

To meet its ambitious policy goals, government agencies need to move beyond stale hiring playbooks and think creatively. Strategies like flexible hiring mechanisms can help the Department of Energy–and all federal agencies–meet urgent needs and begin to build a longer-term talent pipeline. Workforce development, recruitment, and hiring can take years to do right – but mechanisms like tour-of-service models (i.e. temporary or termed positions), direct hire authorities, and excepted service hiring allow agencies to retain talent quickly, overcome administrative bottlenecks, and access individuals with technical expertise who may not otherwise consider working in the public sector. See the Appendix for more information on specific hiring authorities.

This paper outlines insights, strategies, and opportunities for DOE’s talent needs based on the Federation of American Scientists’ (FAS) one-year pilot partnership with the department. Non-federal actors in the clean energy ecosystem can also benefit from this report–by understanding the different avenues into the federal government, civil society and private organizations can work more effectively with DOE to shepherd in the clean energy revolution. 

Broadly, we hope that our experience working with DOE can serve as a case study for other federal agencies when considering the challenges and opportunities around talent recruitment, onboarding, and retention.

Where does DOE need talent? 

While the IRA and IIJA funded dozens of programs across DOE, there are several offices that received larger amounts of funding and have critical talent needs currently. 

A Pilot Partnership: FAS and DOE Talent Efforts

In January 2022, FAS established a partnership with DOE to support the implementation of a broad range of ambitious priorities to stimulate a clean energy transition. Through a partnership with DOE’s Office of Under Secretary for Science and Innovation (S4), our team discovered unmet talent needs and worked with S4 to develop strategies to address hiring challenges posed by DOE’s rapid growth through the IIJA. 

This included expanding FAS’s Impact Fellowship program to DOE. This program supports fellows who bring scientific and technical expertise to bear in the public domain, including within government. To date, through IPA (Intergovernmental Personnel Act) agreements, FAS has placed five fellows in high-impact positions in DOE, with another cohort of 5 fellows in the pipeline.

FAS Impact Fellows placed at DOE have proven that this mechanism can have a positive impact on government operations. Current Fellows work in a number of DOE offices, using their expertise to forward work on emerging clean energy technologies, facilitate the transition of energy communities from fossil fuels to clean energy, and ensure that DOE’s work is communicated strategically and widely, among other projects. In a short time, these fellows have had a large impact–they are bringing expertise from outside government to bear in their roles at the agency. 

In addition to placing fellows, FAS has worked to evangelize DOE’s Clean Energy Corps by actively recruiting, holding events, and advertising for specific roles within DOE. To more broadly support hiring and workforce development at the agency, we piloted a series of technical assistance projects in coordination with DOE, including hiring webinars and cross-sector roundtables with leaders in the agency and the larger clean energy ecosystem. 

From this work, FAS has learned more about the challenges and opportunities of talent acquisition–from flexible hiring mechanisms to recruitment–and has developed several recommendations for both Congress and DOE to strengthen the federal clean energy workforce.

Flexible Hiring Mechanisms

One key lesson from the past year of work is the importance of flexible hiring mechanisms broadly. This includes special authorities like the Direct Hire Authority, but also includes tour-of-service models of employment. A ‘tour-of-service’ position can take many forms, but generally is a termed or temporary position, often full-time and focused on a specific project or set of projects. In times of urgency, like the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic or following the passage of large pieces of new legislation, hiring managers may need high numbers of staff in a short amount of time to implement policy–a challenge often heightened by stringent federal hiring guidelines. 

Traditional federal hiring is frustrating for both sides. For applicants, filling out applications is complicated and jargony and the wait times are long and unpredictable. For offices, resources are scarce, there are seemingly endless legal and administrative hoops to jump through, and the wait times are still long and unpredictable. In general, tour-of-service hiring mechanisms offer a way to hire key staff for specific needs more quickly, while offering many other unique benefits, including, but not limited to, cross-sector knowledge sharing, professional development, recruitment tools, and relationship-building.

These mechanisms can also expand the potential talent pool for a particular position–highly trained technical professionals can prove difficult to recruit on a full-time basis, but temporary positions may be more attractive to them. IPA agreements, for example, can last for 1-2 years and take less time to execute than hiring permanent employees or contractors. More generally, all types of flexible hiring authorities can give agencies quicker ways of hiring highly qualified staff in sometimes niche fields. Flexible hiring mechanisms can also reduce the barrier to entry for professionals not as familiar with federal hiring processes–broadening offices’ reach and increasing the diversity of applicants.

FAS’s work with DOE has demonstrated these benefits. With FAS and other organizations, DOE has successfully used IPAs to staff high-impact positions. More recommendations on the use of IPAs specifically can be found in a later section. Through its Impact Fellowship, FAS has yielded successful case studies of how cross-sector talent can support impactful policy implementation in the department.

DOE should expand awareness and use of flexible hiring mechanisms.

DOE should work to expand the awareness and use of flexible hiring mechanisms in order to bring in more highly skilled employees with cross-sector knowledge and experience. This could be achieved in a number of ways. The Office of the Chief Human Capital Office (CHCO) should continue to educate hiring managers across DOE about potential hiring authorities available: they could offer additional trainings on different mechanisms and work with OPM to identify opportunities for new authorities. There are existing communities of practice for recruitment and other talent topics at DOE, and hiring officials can use these to discuss best practices and challenges around using hiring authorities effectively. 

DOE can also look to other agencies for ideas on innovative hiring. Agencies like the Department of Homeland Security, Department of Defense, and Department of Veterans Affairs run different forms of industry exchange programs that allow private sector experts to bring their skills and knowledge into government and vice versa. Another example is the Joint Statistical Research Program hosted by the Internal Revenue Service’s Statistics of Income Office. This program brings in tax policy experts on term appointments using the IPA mechanism, similar to the National Science Foundation’s Rotator program. Once developed, these programs can allow agencies to benefit from talent and expertise from a larger pool and access specialized skill sets while protecting against conflicts of interest.

DOE should partner with external organizations to champion tour-of-service programs.

There are other ways to expand flexible hiring mechanism use as well. Program offices and the Office of the CHCO can partner with outside organizations like FAS to champion tour-of-service programs in the wider clean energy community, in order to educate non-federal eligible parties on how they can get involved. Federal hiring processes can seem opaque to outside organizations, with additional paperwork, conflict of interest concerns, long timelines, and potential clearance hurdles. If outside organizations better understand the different ways they can partner with agencies and the benefits of doing so, agencies could increase enthusiasm for programs like tour-of-service hiring. At NSF, for example, the Rotator program is well known in the communities it operates within–both academia and government understand the benefits of participating. 

Although these mechanisms and authorities have significant medium- and long-term benefits for agencies, they require upfront administrative effort and cost. Even if staff are aware of potential tools they can use, understanding the logistics, funding mechanisms, conflict of interest regulations, and recruitment and placement of staff hired through these mechanisms often requires investment of time and money from the agency side and can overwhelm already stressed hiring managers. 

Congress should increase funding for DOE’s Office of the Chief Human Capital Officer.

In order to support DOE in using flexible hiring mechanisms more effectively, Congress should direct more funding to the agency’s Office of the Chief Human Capital Officer. In FY23, the office has not only continued to execute on mandates from the IIJA and the IRA, but has introduced new programs aimed at modernizing the office and improving on hiring. These programs and tools, including standing up talent teams to better assess competency gaps across program offices and developing HR IT platforms to more effectively make data-driven personnel decisions, are vital to the growth of the office and in turn the ability of DOE to follow through on key executive priorities. Congress should increase funding to DOE’s Human Capital office by $10M in FY24 over FY23 levels. As IRA and IIJA priorities continue to be rolled out, the Human Capital office will remain pivotal to the agency’s success. 

Congress should increase DOE’s baseline program direction funds. 

A related recommendation is for Congress to further support hiring at DOE by increasing the base budget of program direction funds across agency offices. Restrictions on this funding limits the agency’s ability to hire and the number of employees it can bring on. When offices are limited in the number of staff they can hire, they have tended to bring on more senior employees. This helps achieve the agency’s mission but limits the overall growth of the agency – without early career talent, offices are unable to train a new generation of diverse clean energy leaders. Increasing program direction budgets through the annual appropriations process will allow DOE to have more flexibility in who they hire, building a stronger workforce across the agency.

Clean Energy Corps and the Direct Hire Authority

Expanded Direct Hire Authority has been a boon for DOE, despite some implementation challenges. Congress included DHA in the IIJA, in order to help federal agencies quickly add staff to implement the legislation. In response, DOE set an initial goal of hiring over 1,000 new employees in its Clean Energy Corps, which encompasses all DOE staff who work on clean energy and climate. DOE also requested an additional authority for supporting implementation of the IRA through OPM. To date, the program has received almost 100,000 applications and has hired nearly 700 employees. We have heard positive feedback from offices across the agency about how the DHA has helped hire qualified staff more quickly than through traditional hiring. It has allowed DOE offices to take advantage of the momentum in the clean energy movement right now and made it easier for applicants to show their interest and move through the hiring process. To date, among federal agencies with IIJA/IRA direct hire authorities, DOE has been an exemplar in implementation.

The Direct Hire Authority has been successful so far in part because of its advertisement; there was public excitement about the climate impact of the IIJA and IRA, and DOE took advantage of the momentum and shared information about the Clean Energy Corps widely, including through partnerships with non-governmental entities. For example, FAS and Clean Energy for America held hiring webinars, and other organizations and individuals have continued to share the announcement. 

Congress should extend the Direct Hire Authority.

Congress should consider extending the authority past its current timeline. The agency’s direct hire authority under the IIJA expires in 2027, while its authority requested through OPM expires at the end of 2025 – and is capped at only 300 positions.  With DOE taking on more demonstration and deployment activities as well as increased community and stakeholder engagement with the passage of the IIJA and IRA, the agency needs capacity–and the Direct Hire Authority can help it get the specialized resources it needs. Extending the authority beyond 2025 and requesting that OPM increase the cap on positions is more urgent, but the authority should continue past 2027 as well, to ensure that DOE can continue to hire effectively. 

Congress should expand the breadth of DHA. 

Additionally, Congress should expand the authority to other offices across DOE. It is currently limited to certain roles and offices, but there are additional opportunities within the department to support the clean energy transition that don’t have access to DHA. This is especially important given that offices with the direct hire authority can pull employees from offices without–leaving the latter to backfill positions on a much longer timeline using conventional merit hiring practices. Expanding the authority would support the development of the agency as a whole. 

Beyond just removing the authority’s cap on roles supporting the IRA, expansions or extensions of the authority should increase the number of authorized positions to account for a baseline attrition rate. The authority limits the number of positions that can be filled – once that number of staff is hired, the authority can no longer be used for that office or agency. As with any workplace, federal agencies experience a normal amount of attrition, but the stakes are higher when direct hire employees leave the organization because of the authority’s constraints. Any authorization of the DHA in the future should consider how attrition will impact actual hires over the authorization period. 

In order to bolster support for expanding the authority, DOE can take steps to share out successes of the program. The DHA has been a huge win for federal clean energy hiring, and publicizing news about related programs, offices, funding opportunities, and employees that would not exist but for the support of the Clean Energy Corps would help make the connection between flexible hiring and government effectiveness and would generate excitement about DOE’s activities in the general public.

DOE should highlight success stories of the Clean Energy Corps.

As part of a larger external communications strategy, DOE should highlight success stories of current employees hired through the Clean Energy Corps portal. These spotlights could focus on projects, partnerships, or funding opportunities that employees contributed to and put a face to the achievements of the Clean Energy Corps thus far. Not only would this encourage future high-quality applicants and ensure continued interest in the program, but would also advertise to Congress and the general public that the authority is successful and increase support for more flexible hiring authorities and clean energy funding. 

There are also some opportunities to improve DOE’s use of the authority and make it even more effective. With so many applications, hiring managers and program offices are often overwhelmed by sheer volume – leading to long wait times for applicants. Some offices at DOE have tried to address this bottleneck by building informal processes to screen and refer candidates–using their internal system to identify qualified applicants and sharing those applications with other program offices. But there may be additional ways to reduce the backlog of applications. 

DOE should conduct a review of DHA’s use thus far.

DOE should conduct an assessment of the use of the Direct Hire Authority in relevant offices. The program has been running for over a year, and there is enough data to review and better understand strengths and areas of growth of the authority. The review could be an opportunity to highlight and build on successful strategies like the informal process above–with program offices who currently use those strategies helping to scale them up. It could also assess attrition rates and compare them to agency-wide and non-DHA attrition rates to understand opportunities to improve or share out successes around retention. Finally, the review could also act as a resource for Congress to help justify the authority’s renewal in the future. 

Use of IPA Agreements

One of the most well-known tour-of-service programs is the Intergovernmental Personnel Act. When used effectively, it can allow agencies to share cross-sector knowledge, increase their capacity, and achieve their missions more fully. As noted previously, DOE has made use of IPAs in some capacities, but barriers to expanding the program still exist. First, the DOE maintains a list of ‘IPA-certified’ organizations, including non-profits that must first certify their eligibility to participate in IPA agreements. According to OPM, if an organization has already been certified by an agency, this certification is permanent and may apply throughout the federal government. This is an effective practice that theoretically allows DOE to bring on IPAs from those organizations more quickly – without the additional administrative work necessary to research and vet each organization multiple times. 

However, when FAS engaged DOE to expand the Impact Fellowship to the agency, FAS was asked to re-certify its eligibility separately with DOE despite already having conducted IPA agreements with other agencies. As of May 2021, DOE has only approved 22 organizations for IPA eligibility. With the clean energy ecosystem booming, this leaves a large amount of talent potential going untapped. 

DOE should amend its IPA directive.

One solution to this issue would be for DOE to amend its IPA directive, which was last updated in 2000, to automatically approve IPA eligibility for organizations that have been certified by other agencies. Agencies such as NSF, USDA, GSA, and others also maintain lists of IPA-eligible organizations, providing DOE a readily available pool of potential IPA talent without certifying those organizations independently. This solution could expand the list of certified organizations and reduce DOE’s internal administrative burden. Organizations that know they will go through an initial vetting process once rather than multiple times could redouble efforts to build that partnership with DOE. 

DOE should work with outside organizations to share strategies. 

The previous recommendation on educating eligible non-federal organizations on tour-of-service mechanisms applies here as well. Organizations like FAS with a proven track record of setting up IPA agreements with agencies can share best practices, success stories, and champion the program in the broader non-profit ecosystem. However, agencies can also develop externally facing IPA resources, sharing training and ‘how-to’ guides with nonprofits and academic institutions that could be good fits for the program but aren’t aware of their eligibility or requirements to participate.

Recruitment

Recruitment is another area where we learned lessons from our work alongside DOE. FAS and Clean Energy for America held recruitment information sessions for people interested in working for DOE, spotlighting offices who needed more staff. One strategy that helped target specific skill gaps within the agency was developing ‘personas’ based on certain skill sets, like finance and manufacturing. These personas were short descriptions of a specific skill set for an industry, consisting of several highlighted experiences, skills, or certifications that are key to roles in that industry. This enabled our team to develop a more tailored recruitment event, conduct targeted outreach, and execute the event with a more invested group of attendees. 

DOE should identify specific skills gaps to target recruitment efforts.

DOE hiring managers and program offices should identify skills gaps in their offices and recruit for those gaps using personas. Personas can help managers more intentionally target outreach and recruit in certain industries by allowing them to advertise to associations, academic programs, or on job boards that include potential applicants with those skills and experiences. This practice could bolster recruitment and reduce the time to hire by attracting more qualified candidates up front. It also helps offices take a more proactive approach to hiring–a difficult ask for hiring managers, who are often overworked. 

DOE should continue to utilize remote flexibilities.

Another successful recruitment strategy highlighted in our work with DOE has been the use of remote flexible positions. DOE should continue to widely utilize remote flexibilities in job opportunities and recruitment in order to attract talent from all 50 states, not just those where DOE has a physical presence. As the desire for remote employment remains high across the public and private sector, fully utilizing the remote flexibilities can help federal employers stay competitive with the private sector and attract high-quality talent.

Another area of recruitment where DOE could capitalize further is with more partnerships with non-federal organizations. Outside organizations can leverage their networks–helping expand the talent pool, increase diversity, and support candidates through the federal hiring process, competitive or otherwise.  Networks like New York Climate Tech have been tirelessly organizing the climate tech community in New York City, and even plan to start expanding to other cities soon. These types of organizing are invigorating for climate professionals; they can energize existing advocates and evangelize to new ones. Helping connect those networks to government opportunities–whether prize competitions, job opportunities, or grants–can strengthen cross-sector relationships and the clean energy workforce overall. 

Such efforts would also support federal recruitment strategies, which are often not as visible as they could be given the sheer amount of work required for proactive outreach. Earth Partners, a climate tech venture capital firm, partnered with the Office of Clean Energy Deployment to hire for high-impact positions by leveraging its own network. 

DOE should use partner organizations to broadcast hiring needs. 

DOE Office of the Human Capital Officer, hiring managers, or program offices should consider how they can partner with other organizations to broadcast hiring needs. These can be larger clean energy associations and member organizations like Clean Energy for America, New York Climate Tech, FAS, and Climate Power, or they could be energy sector affinity groups like Women In Renewable Industries and Sustainable Energy (WRISE) and the American Association of Blacks in Energy (AABE). Coordinated social media campaigns, partnered recruitment events, or even sending out open positions in those organizations’ regular newsletters could help broaden DOE’s recruitment reach. Because of the momentum in the clean energy community, non-federal organizations have built out substantial recruitment infrastructure for potential applicants and can help publicize positions. 

DOE should build a presence at campus hiring events.

Similarly, DOE hiring managers should build and maintain a presence at higher education hiring events. There are a number of ways to bring more early career staff into government, but DOE can focus on recruiting more intentionally from universities and community colleges. The agency should cultivate relationships with university networks–especially those of Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs) and Minority Serving Institutions (MSIs)–and develop recruitment messages that appeal to younger populations. DOE could also focus on universities with strong clean energy curricula–in the form of recognized courses and programs or student associations. 

DOE should expand partnerships with external recruitment firms.

Some positions, of course, are harder to recruit for. In addition to mid-level employees, government also needs strong senior leaders–candidates for these positions don’t often come in droves to recruitment events. Some DOE offices have found success with using private recruitment firms to identify candidates from the private sector and invite them to apply for Senior Executive Service (SES) level positions in government. This practice, in addition to bringing in specific executive recruitment, also helps career private-sector applicants navigate the government hiring process. 

DOE should learn from current strategies and continue to partner with private recruitment firms to identify potential SES candidates and invite them to apply. Using recruitment firms can help simplify position description language and help guide candidates through the process. DOE currently uses this successfully for certain skill set gaps, but should seek to expand the practice for recruitment needs that are more specific. 

DOE should develop its own senior talent recruitment strategy. 

Longer term, DOE should develop its own senior talent recruitment strategy. This strategy can be developed using lessons learned from private recruitment firms or from meeting with other agencies to understand best practices in the space. SES positions require different candidate management strategies, and if DOE aims to attract more non-federal talent, developing in-house expertise is important.

DOE already has the infrastructure for strategies like this. Offices involved in IIJA implementation are building office-specific recruitment strategies. These strategies consider diversity, equity, inclusion and accessibility, as well as skill sets and high-need positions within offices. Incorporating senior talent needs into these strategies could help uncover best practices for attracting quality leaders, and expanding these recruitment strategies beyond just IIJA-oriented offices could support workforce development across the agency more broadly. 

The Path Forward

DOE has made significant progress on the road to implementation, hiring hundreds of new employees to support the clean energy transition and carry out programs from IIJA, IRA, and the CHIPS and Science Act. The agency still faces challenges, but also opportunities to grow its workforce, improve its hiring processes, and bring in even more high-quality, skilled talent into the federal government. We hope DOE and Congress will consider these recommendations as they continue to work toward a stronger clean energy ecosystem in the years to come.


Appendix: Overview of hiring authorities

IPAs 

The Intergovernmental Personnel Act (IPA) Mobility Program that allows temporary assignment of personnel between the federal government and state/local/tribal governments, colleges/universities, FFRDCs, and approved non-profit organizations. According to a 2022 Government Accountability Office report, IPAs are a high-impact mechanism for bringing talent into the federal government quickly, yet they’re often underutilized. As detailed in the report, agencies’(including DOE) can use the IPA Mobility Program to address agency skills gaps in highly technical or complex mission areas, provide talent with flexibility and opportunities for temporary commitments, and can be administratively light touch and cost effective, when the program is implemented correctly. The report noted that agencies struggled to use the program to its full effectiveness, and that there’s an opportunity for agencies to increase their use of the program, if they can tackle the challenges. 

Direct Hire

The Direct Hire Authority allows agencies to directly hire candidates for critical needs or when a severe shortage of candidates exists. This authority circumvents competitive hiring and candidates preferences, allowing agencies to significantly reduce the time involved to hire candidates. It also presents an easier application process for candidates. DHA must be specially granted by OPM unless a governmentwide authority already exists–as it does for Information Technology Management, STEM, and Cybersecurity. For example, DOE was granted a DHA for positions related to implementing the IIJA and IRA.

Excepted Service

EJ and EK

EJ and EK hiring authorities are a form of “excepted service” unique to DOE. According to DOE, the EJ authority is used to enhance the Department’s recruitment and retention of highly qualified scientific, engineering, and professional and administrative personnel. Appointments and corresponding compensation determined  under this authority can be made without regard to the civil service laws.” The EK authority is similar, but more specific to personnel whose duties will relate to safety at defense nuclear facilities of the Department. The EK authority is time-limited by law and must be renewed.

Schedule A(r)

Also known as the “fellowship authority,”  Schedule A(r) facilitates term appointments for 1 to 4 years. This authority is especially helpful for:

Experts and Consultants

According to the department’s HR resources, DOE uses Experts and Consultants to, “provide professional or technical expertise that does not exist or is not readily available within DOE or to perform services that are not of a continuing nature and/or could not be performed by DOE employees in competitive or other permanent full-time positions.” Typically, Expert and Consultants can be used for intermittent, part-time, or term-limited, full-time roles.

Understanding and using these flexible hiring authorities can help DOE expand its network of talent and hire the people it needs for this current moment. More details on flexible hiring mechanisms can be found here.

Using Other Transactions at DOE to Accelerate the Clean Energy Transition

Summary

The Department of Energy (DOE) should leverage its congressionally granted other transaction authority to its full statutory extent to accelerate the demonstration and deployment of innovations critical to the clean energy transition. To do so, the Secretary of Energy should encourage DOE staff to consider using other transactions to advance the agency’s core missions. DOE’s Office of Acquisition Management should provide resources to educate program and contracting staff on the opportunity that other transactions present. Doing so would unlock a less used but important tool in demonstrating and accelerating critical technology developments at scale with industry.

Challenge and Opportunity

OTs are an underleveraged tool for accelerating energy technology.

Our global and national clean energy transition requires advancing novel technology innovations across transportation, electricity generation, industrial production, carbon capture and storage, and more. If we hope to hit our net-zero emissions benchmarks by 2030 and 2050, we must do a far better job commercializing innovations, mitigating the risk of market failures, and using public dollars to crowd in private investment behind projects. 

The Biden Administration and the Department of Energy, empowered by Congress through the Inflation Reduction Act (IRA) and the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law (BIL), have taken significant steps to meet these challenges. The Loan Programs Office, the Office of Clean Energy Demonstrations, the Office of Technology Transitions, and many more dedicated public servants are working hard towards the mission set forward by Congress and the administration. They are deploying a range of grants, procurement contracts, and tax credits to achieve their goals, and there are more tools at their disposal to accelerate a just, clean energy transition. The large sums of money appropriated under BIL and IRA require new ways of thinking about contracting and agreements.

Congress gives several federal agencies the authority to use flexible agreements known as other transactions (OTs). Importantly, OTs are defined by what they are not. They are not a government contract or grant, and thus not governed by the Federal Acquisitions Regulations (FAR). Historically, NASA and the DoD have been the most frequent users of other transaction authorities, including for projects like the Commercial Orbital Transportation System at NASA which developed the Falcon 9 space vehicle, and the Global Hawk program at DARPA.

In contrast, the Department of Energy has infrequently used OTs, and even when it has, the programs have achieved no notable outcomes in support of their agency mission. When the DOE has used OTs, the agency has interpreted their authority as constraining them to cost-sharing research agreements. This restricts the creativity of agency staff in executing OTs. All the law says is that an OT is not a grant or contract. By limiting itself to cost sharing research agreements, DOE is preemptively foreclosing all other kinds of novel partnerships. This is critical because some nascent climate-solution technologies may face a significant market failure or a set of misaligned incentives that a traditional research and development transaction (R&D) may not fix.

This interpretation has hampered DOE’s use of OTs, limited its ability to engage small businesses and nontraditional contractors, and prevented DOE from fully pursuing its agency mission and the administration’s climate goals.

Exploring further use of OTs would open up a range of possibilities for the agency to help address critical market failures, help U.S. firms bridge the well-documented valleys of death in technology development, and fulfill the benchmarks laid out in the DOE’s Pathways to Commercial Liftoff.
According to a GAO report from 2016, the DOE has only used OTs a handful of times since they had the authority updated in 2005, nearly two decades ago. Compare the DOE’s use of OTs to other agencies in the four-year period in the table below (the most recent for which there is open data).

TABLE 1

From GAO-16-209

Almost every other agency uses OTs at a significantly higher rate, including agencies that have smaller overall budgets. While quantity of agreements is not the only metric to rely on, the magnitude of the discrepancy is significant. 

Other agencies have made significant changes since 2014, most notably the Department of Defense. A 2020 CSIS report found that DoD use of OTs for R&D increased by 712% since FY2015, including a 75% increase in FY2019. This represents billions of dollars in awards, much of which went to consortia, including for both prototyping and production transactions. While the DOE does not have the same budget or mission as DoD, the sea change in culture among DoD officials willing to use OTs over the past few years is instructive. While DoD did receive expanded authority in the FY2015 and 2016 NDAA, this alone did not account for the massive increase. A cultural shift drove program staff to look at OTs as ways to quickly prototype and deploy solutions that could advance their missions, and support from leadership enabled staff to successfully learn how and when to use OTs.

The Department of Transportation (DOT) only uses OTs for two agencies, the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) and the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration (PHIMSA). Like DOE, the FAA is not restricted in what it can and can’t use OTs for. It is authorized to “carry out the functions of the Administrator and the Administration…on such terms and conditions as the Administrator may consider appropriate.” Unlike DOE, the FAA and DOT have used their authority for several dozen transactions a year, totaling $1.45 billion in awards between 2010 and 2014.

FIGURE 1

From the GAO chart (Table 1), it’s clear that ARPA-E also follows the DOE in deploying very few OTs in support of its mission. Despite being originally envisioned as a high-potential, high-impact funder for technology that is too early in the R&D process for private investors to support, the most recent data shows that ARPA-E does not use OTs flexibly to support high-potential, high-impact tech.

The same GAO report cited above stated that:

“DOE’s regulations—because they are based on DOD’s regulations—include requirements that limit DOE’s use of other transaction agreements…. Officials told us they plan to seek approval from the Office of Management and Budget to modify the agency’s other transaction regulations to better reflect DOE’s mission, consistent with its statutory authority. According to DOE officials, if the changes are approved, DOE may increase its use of other transaction agreements.” 

That report was published in 2016, but it is unclear that any changes were sought or approved, though they likely do not need to change any regulations at all to actually make use of their authority.1 The realm of the possible is quite large, and DOE has yet to fully explore the potential benefits to its mission that OTs provide. 

DOE can use OTs without any further authority to drive progress in critical technologies.

The good news is that DOE has the ability to use OTs without further guidance from Congress or formally changing any guidelines. Recognizing their full statutory authority would open up use cases for OTs that would help the DOE make meaningful progress towards its agency mission and the administration’s climate goals. 

For example, the DOE could use OTs in the following ways:

Given the exigencies of climate change and the need to rapidly decarbonize our society and economy, there are very real instances in which traditional research contracts or grants are not enough to move the needle or unlock a significant market opportunity for a technology. Forward contract acquisitions, pay for delivery contracts, or other forms of transactions that are nonstandard but critical to supporting development of technology are covered under this authority.

One promising area where it seems the DOE is currently using this approach is in supporting the hydrogen hubs initiative. Recently the DOE announced a $1 billion initiative for demand-side support mechanisms to mitigate the risk of market failures and accelerate the commercialization of clean hydrogen technologies. The Funding Opportunity Announcement (FOA) for the H2Hubs program notes that “other FOA launches or use of Other Transaction Authorities may also be used to solicit new technologies, capabilities, end-uses, or partners.” The DOE could use OTs more frequently as a tool to advance other critical commercial liftoff strategies or to maximize the impact of dollars appropriated to implementation of the BIL and IRA. Some areas that are ripe for creative uses of other transactions include:

This demand-pull would complement other recent actions taken to bolster critical minerals like the clean vehicle tax credit and the Loan Program Office’s loans to mineral processing facilities. Such a consortium could come from the existing critical materials institute or be formed by separate entities.

DOE could use other transactions to further support this nascent consortium and increase the demonstration and deployment of geothermal projects. The agency could also use other transactions to organize the sharing of critical subsurface data and resources through a single entity.

A carbon removal purchasing agreement for the DOE’s Regional Direct Air Capture Hubs could function much the same as the proposed hydrogen hubs initiative. It also could take the shape of a consortium of DAC vendors, nonprofits, scientists, and others managed by a single entity that can set standards for purchase agreements. This would cut the negotiation time among potential parties by a significant amount, allowing for cost saving and faster decarbonization.

DOE could organize an advance market commitment for long-duration energy storage capabilities on federal properties that meet certain storage hour and grid integration requirements. Such a commitment could include the DoD and the General Services Administration (GSA), which own and operate the large portfolio of federal properties, including bases and facilities in hard-to-reach locations that could benefit from more predictable and secure energy infrastructure. Early procurement of capability-meeting but expensive systems could help diversify the market and drive technology down the cost curve to reach the target of $650 per kW and 75% RTE for intra-day storage and $1,100 per kW 55 and 60% RTE for multiday storage.

To use OTs more frequently, the DOE needs to focus on culture and education.

As noted, the DOE does not need additional authorization or congressional legislation to use OTs more frequently. The agency received authority in its original charter in 1977, codified in 42 U.S. Code § 7256, which state:

“The Secretary is authorized to enter into and perform such contracts, leases, cooperative agreements, or other similar transactions with public agencies and private organizations and persons, and to make such payments (in lump sum or installments, and by way of advance or reimbursement) as he may deem to be necessary or appropriate to carry out functions now or hereafter vested in the Secretary.” [emphasis added]

This and other legislation gives DOE the authority to use OTs as the Secretary deems necessary. 

Later guidelines in implementation state that other officials at DOE who have been presidentially appointed and confirmed by the Senate are able to execute these transactions. The DOE’s Office of Acquisition Management, Office of General Counsel, and any other legal bodies involved should update any unnecessarily restrictive guidelines, or note that they will follow the original authority granted in the agency’s 1977 charter. 

While that would resolve any implementation questions about the ability to use OT at DOE, the agency ultimately needs strong leadership and buy-in from the Secretary in order to take full advantage. As many observers note regarding DoD’s expanding use of OTs, culture is what matters the most. The DOE should take the following actions to make sure the changing of these guidelines empowers DOE public servants to their full potential:

  1. The Secretary should make clear to DOE leadership and staff that increased use of OTs is not only permissible but actively encouraged.
  1. The Secretary should provide internal written guidance to DOE leadership and program-level staff on what criteria need to be met for her to sign off on an OT, if needed. These criteria should be driven by DOE mission needs, technology readiness, and other resources like the commercial liftoff reports.
  1. The Office of Acquisition Management should collaboratively educate relevant program staff, not just contracting staff, on the use of OTs, including by providing cross-agency learning opportunities from peers at DARPA, NASA, DoD, DHS, and DOT.
  1. DOE should provide an internal process for designing and drawing up an OT agreement for staff to get constructive feedback from multiple levels of experienced professionals.
  1. DOE should issue a yearly report on how many OTs they agree to and basic details of the agreements. After four years, GAO should evaluate DOE’s use of OTs and communicate any areas for improvement. Since OTs don’t meet normal contracting disclosure requirements, some form of public disclosure would be critical for accountability.

Mitigating risk

Finally, there are many ways to address potential risks involved with executing new OTs for clean energy solutions. While there are no legal contracting risks (as OTs are not guided by the FAR), DOE staff should consider ways to most judiciously and appropriately enter into agreements. For one resource, they can leverage the eight recent reports put together by four different offices of inspector generals on agencies’ usage of other transactions to understand best practices. Other important risk limiting activities include:

  1. DoD commonly uses consortiums to gather critical industry partners together around challenges in areas such as advanced manufacturing, mobility, enterprise healthcare innovations, and more.
  1. Education of relevant parties and modeling of agreements after successful DARPA and NASA OTs. These resources are in many cases publicly available online and provide ready-made templates (for example, the NIH also offers a 500-page training guide with example agreements).

Conclusion

The DOE should use the full authority granted to it by Congress in executing other transactions to advance the clean energy transition and develop secure energy infrastructure in line with their agency mission. DOE does not need additional authorization or legislation from Congress in order to do so. GAO reports have highlighted the limitations of DOE’s OT use and the discrepancy in usage between agencies. Making this change would bring the DOE in line with peer agencies and push the country towards more meaningful progress on net-zero goals.

Frequently Asked Questions
What are some examples of OTs?

The following examples are pulled from a GAO report but should not be regarded as the only model for potential agreements.


Examples of Past OTs at DOE
“In 2010, ARPA-E entered into an other transaction agreement with a commercial oil and energy company to research and develop new drilling technology to access geothermal energy. Specifically, according to agency documentation, the technology being tested was designed to drill into hard rock more quickly and efficiently using a hardware system to transmit high-powered lasers over long distances via fiber optic cables and integrating the laser power with a mechanical drill bit. According to ARPA-E documents, this technology could provide access to an estimated 100,000 or more megawatts of geothermal electrical power in the United States by 2050, which would help ARPA-E meet its mission to enhance the economic and energy security of the United States through the development of energy technologies.


According to ARPA-E officials, an other transaction agreement was used due to the company’s concerns about protecting its intellectual property rights, in case the company was purchased by a different company in the future. Specifically, one type of intellectual property protection known as “march-in rights” allows federal agencies to take control of a patent when certain conditions have not been met, such as when the entity has not made efforts to commercialize the invention within an agreed upon time frame.33 Under the terms of ARPA-E’s other transaction agreement, march-in rights were modified so that if the company itself was sold, it could choose to pay the government and retain the rights to the technology developed under the agreement. Additionally, according to DOE officials, ARPA-E included a United States competitive clause in the agreement that required any invention developed under the agreement to be substantially manufactured in the United States, provided products were also sold in the United States, unless the company showed that it was not commercially feasible to do so. This agreement lasted until fiscal year 2013, and ARPA-E obligated about $9 million to it.”


Examples at DoD
“In 2011, DOD entered into a 2-year other transaction agreement with a nontraditional contractor for the development of a new military sensor system. According to the agreement documentation, this military sensor system was intended to demonstrate DOD’s ability to quickly react to emerging critical needs through rapid prototyping and deployment of sensing capabilities. By using an other transaction agreement, DOD planned to use commercial technology, development techniques, and approaches to accelerate the sensor system development process. The agreement noted that commercial products change quickly, with major technology changes occurring in less than 2 years. In contrast, according to the agreement, under the typical DOD process, military sensor systems take 3 to 8 years to complete, and may not match evolving mission needs by the time the system is complete. According to an official, DOD obligated $8 million to this agreement.”

Are there any restrictions on the use of OTs?

Other interpretations of the statute have prevented DOE from leveraging OTs, and there seems to be confusion on what is allowed. For example, a commonly cited OTA explainer implies that DOE is statutorily limited to “RD&D projects. Cost sharing agreement required.”


But nowhere in the original statute does Congress require DOE to exclusively use cost sharing agreements, nor is this the case at other agencies where OTs are common practice.


However, the Energy Policy Act of 2005 did require the DOE to issue guidelines for the use of OTs 90 days after the passing of the law, and this is where it gets complicated. They did so, and according to a 2008 GAO report, DOE enacted guidelines which used a specific model called a technology investment agreement (TIA). These guidelines were modeled on the DoD’s then-current guidelines for OTs and TIAs, mandating cost sharing agreements “to the maximum extent practicable” between the federal government and nonfederal parties to an agreement.2 An Acquisition/Financial Assistance Letter issued by senior DOE procurement officials in 2021 defines this explicitly: “Other Transaction Agreement, as used in this AL/FAL, means Technology Investment Agreement as codified at 10 C.F.R., Part 603, pursuant to DOE’s Other Transaction Authority of 42 U.S.C. § 7256.” However, the DOE’s authority as codified in 42 U.S.C. § 7256 (a) and (g) does not define OTs as TIAs, the definition is just a guideline from DOE, and could be changed.

What are Technology Investment Agreements?

Technology Investment Agreements are used to reduce the barrier to commercial and nontraditional firms’ involvement with mission-critical research needs at DOE. They are particularly useful in that they do not require traditional government accounting systems, which can be burdensome for small or new firms to implement. But that does not mean they are the only instrument that should be used. The law says that TIAs for research projects should involve cost sharing to the “maximum extent practicable.” This does not mean that cost sharing must always occur. There could be many forms of transactions other than grants and contracts in which cost sharing is neither practicable nor feasible.


Furthermore, the DOE is empowered to use OTs for research, applied research, development, and demonstration projects. Development and demonstration projects would not fit neatly in the category of research projects covered by TIAs. So subjecting them to the same guidelines is an unduly restrictive guideline.

What are consortiums?

Consortia are basically single entities that manage a group of members (to include private firms, academics, nonprofits, and more) aligned around a specific challenge or topic. Government can execute other transactions with the consortium manager, who then organizes the members around an agreed scope. MITRE provides a longer explainer and list of consortia.