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Our national experiment in R&D for clean energy just turned 10

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The world needs clean-energy breakthroughs. As we scale up existing technologies to displace fossil fuels, we also must work to create new technologies that will ease the transition to a low-carbon future. Whether it’s large-scale energy storage, advanced biofuels, or next-generation nuclear reactors, clean energy innovation is an essential part of any sensible climate policy. Luckily, the U.S. has a powerful tool in place to support clean-energy innovation: the Advanced Research Projects Agency-Energy (ARPA-E), which announced its first projects 10 years ago today. 

As presidential candidates develop their climate plans, they should look at what ARPA-E has accomplished over the past decade and recognize its potential to have a major impact on reducing greenhouse gas emissions. The purpose of ARPA-E is to give funding to teams of scientists and engineers with innovative ideas on how to solve a high-risk technological challenge in energy research and development (R&D). Their motto is, “If it works, will it matter?” 

ARPA-E’s current budget within the Department of Energy (DOE) is $366 million — roughly a third of the budget originally recommended by the National Academies in their 2007 report, “Rising Above the Gathering Storm.” That report called for the creation of an agency to sponsor “creative, out-of-the box transformational research that could lead to new ways of fueling the nation and its economy.” 

ARPA-E was crafted in the mold of another federal research agency: DARPA in the Department of Defense. DARPA, the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, is widely credited for its role in creating technologies that have transformed the modern economy, such as GPS, personal computers and the internet. But the major wins from DARPA’s research portfolio were not evident in the agency’s early years. DARPA was founded in 1958; by 1969, its ARPANET project had demonstrated the ability for computers to communicate with each other. This project was a forerunner to what eventually would become the World Wide Web, which was released in 1991 — 33 years into DARPA’s history. It would be even longer still before the world would see the truly transformational effects of the internet.

No one knows what will become the “internet” of clean energy, but there are many areas where ARPA-E could have a huge impact. Grid-scale energy storage is one example. Low-cost grid-connected storage would enable electricity from intermittent renewables such as solar and wind to be available whenever people need it. But we need more R&D on storage technologies to make them cheaper than lithium ion batteries, which currently dominate the storage market. 

ARPA-E has supported scientists and engineers working on new storage materials, device designs and low-cost manufacturing methods. One of ARPA-E’s earliest projects was a team at MIT who created a liquid metal battery and founded the company Ambri. Just last year, ARPA-E awarded tens of millions of dollars to companies and universities across the country working on ideas for long-duration storage technologies, such as Echogen Power Systems in Ohio, and the University of Tennessee. 

ARPA-E is still a young agency and we do not expect to be able to measure its impact on greenhouse gas emissions for another decade or more. But the National Academies found early signs of progress in a 2017 report, “An Assessment of ARPA-E.” Our own research shows that ARPA-E has broken through the age-old barrier between basic and applied research. ARPA-E projects are far more likely to produce a patent than similar projects from other offices in DOE. It also is far more likely to produce both a patent and a scientific publication from the same project, showing that discovering facts and inventing technologies is not an “either-or” choice. The two often go hand-in-hand. 

There are two key things ARPA-E needs in the coming years to increase its chances of success in the long term. First, it needs the resources to take many bets on high-risk technology projects. The Trump administration has proposed each year to zero out ARPA-E’s budget, which has left ARPA-E vulnerable and dependent on Congress for protection. Second, ARPA-E needs a leader who can channel the country’s top science and engineering talent toward particularly tough technical challenges. This year, the Senate confirmed investment banker Lane Genatowski as the director of ARPA-E. Past directors, like those of DOE’s 17 national labs, have been experienced leaders in R&D. Unlike other business investments, breakthrough R&D requires leaders who will encourage agency staff and project teams to explore risky ideas, rather than place safe bets.

There is a bright spot on the horizon for ARPA-E. The House Science Committee has proposed a bipartisan bill (H.R. 4091) to gradually increase the funding for ARPA-E up to $750 million per year by 2024 — a major boost from the current level, though still less than a quarter of DARPA’s budget. We hope that Congress will mark the occasion of ARPA-E’s 10th anniversary by speaking up in vigorous support of ARPA-E. They should take action to expand ARPA-E and empower the agency to fulfill its potential of providing clean-energy breakthroughs.


Anna Goldstein is a senior research fellow at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst. Follow her on Twitter @apgoldst.

Venkatesh Narayanamurti is a professor of technology and public policy at Harvard University.

Tags ARPA-E DARPA Department of Energy Emerging technologies Energy storage
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