Department of Energy: Electrifying America


Anja's class is getting ready for a state-wide science fair, and their assignment is to do something involving energy. Since she's worried about her project, her teacher encourages her to collaborate with a few of her classmates. Anja shares advice and ideas on their projects and gets some feedback in return. On the day of the fair, her experiment on solar cells is a hit, and so are her friends' projects on homemade batteries, different kinds of lightbulbs, and wind turbines. When Anja's experiment wins the fair, her whole school gets to go on a field trip to a solar farm. 


Like Anja's teacher, the Department of Energy, also known as DOE, oversees many different scientific experiments in their seventeen national laboratories. These laboratories have different focuses, from nuclear security to renewable energy. And like Anja's school, when one scientist makes a breakthrough, it benefits the whole country! 

Department of Energy

The Department of Energy (DOE) is a federal executive department, a unit of the executive branch, that began on October 1, 1977 due to the Department of Energy Organization Act. The President appoints the Secretary of the Department of Energy, and they then serve on the Cabinet to advise the President. The DOE is responsible for U.S. policies regarding nuclear power, fossil fuels, and renewable energy sources. It is also responsible for the country's nuclear weapons program, handling nuclear material, and the environmental cleanup of the national nuclear weapons complex. Additionally, it sponsors more research in physical sciences than any other federal agency.

The History

In 1942, the Manhattan Project for developing nuclear weapons began, and the Atomic Energy Act of 1946 then created the Atomic Energy Commission (AEC), thus transferring control of atomic science from military hands into civilian control. However, its regulatory programs were lacking, especially in regards to environmental protection and nuclear reactor safety. The Energy Reorganization Act of 1947 divided its responsibilities among two new agencies: the Energy Research and Development Administration and the Nuclear Regulatory Commission. Due to the increasing importance of these two departments, along with the ongoing oil crisis of 1973, President Jimmy Carter signed the Department of Energy Organization Act of 1977. The act combined several different programs and agencies that had been operating separately, hoping to consolidate their efforts and create a central agency to deal with energy policy.

Because of the number and variety of the DOE's responsibilities, there are thirty-one offices, four power administrations, and the semi-autonomous National Nuclear Security Administration, all of which report to DOE in some capacity. Some of these focus on science and others focus on energy. While these two areas overlap, they have separate undersecretaries who oversee them. For instance, the Office of Artificial Intelligence and Technology focuses heavily on research and development. The Office of Environment, Health, Safety, and Security, on the other hand, focuses more on policy development and safety analyses. 

Along with sponsoring research, the DOE also funds programs like the Workforce Development for Teachers and Scientists. This program sponsors undergraduate internships, graduate thesis research, and an annual nationwide science fair for middle- and high-schoolers that concludes with the National Science Bowl finals. The goal of such programs is to support students interested in the fields of science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM). The programs also ensure that the DOE has people that they may be able to hire in the future, such as statisticians, engineers, electricians, and cybersecurity analysts.

The DOE has around 14,000 federal employees and over 95,000 managing, operating, and contractor employees working in D.C. and field locations around the country. In 2016, the DOE's budget was around $27 billion, and about 65 percent of that went toward national defense efforts, mostly nuclear defense. Energy-conservation, supply, and emergency preparedness received about 21% of the budget. Another fifth went toward general science, space, and technology research.

Why Care?

The DOE is in charge of forming, developing, and advancing energy policy for the US. However, because the President appoints the Secretary, some say that the Department can be swayed unduly by the political leanings of the President's party. In 2016, the Trump transition team asked the DOE to “provide a list of all Department of Energy employees or contractors who have attended” specific climate change meetings, leading to concern within the workforce. The DOE refused to give any names, but once Trump took office, climate science began to be removed from official government websites, including the DOE’s. Links to clean energy tools disappeared, and increased emphasis was placed on economic growth over renewable fuels. The federal executive departments always experience change under a new administration, but some people question the impact of this influence on scientific efforts.

Even if you are not passionate about science, the DOE performs many essential roles. It helps shape energy policies for the U.S. and researches vital topics. However, as with any other government department, the DOE is subject to political sway. This fact means that specific issues, like climate change, can become sensitive topics. It also means that you can influence the Department. For instance, you can contact your representatives and ask them to support certain energy policies or certain types of research.

Think Further

  1. Why do you think the Department of Energy is the agency in charge of nuclear weapons, and not the Department of Defense or a more security-oriented agency? Do the historical reasons behind this choice still make sense today?
  2. How do you think the budget for the Department of Energy should be allocated? Which areas would you prioritize?
  3. Is it acceptable for political ideologies to influence the Department of Energy? If not, how might political influence on federal departments, like the Department of Energy, be minimized? 


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Learn More

  1. DOE., 
  2. “DOE History.” Energy.Gov., 
  3. Davidson, Joe. “Opinion | Energy Dept. Rejects Trump’s Request to Name Climate-Change Workers, Who Remain Worried.” Washington Post., 
  4. “The Trump Administration Scrubs Climate Change Info from Websites. These Two Have Survived.” NBC News.,