U.S. Department of Energy Advanced Research Projects Administration for Energy (ARPA E)
Energy Innovation Summit 2011, Washington, DC
Just as President Kennedy established the very ambitious goal in 1961 to land a human on the moon in less than ten years to regain American leadership in science and technology, President Obama has set the equally tough challenge of generating 80 percent of our electric power by green technologies by the year 2035. If achieved, this goal will decrease our dependence on imported foreign oil, improve national security, and reduce production of greenhouse gases that threaten our climate. Like the space race did 50 years ago, implementing this goal will require improvements in science and technology education and creation of new industries and jobs, providing the fuel needed to sustain our economy for many years to come.
President Obama and Department of Energy DOE Secretary Steven Chu understand however, that the fundamental driver to achieve these goals is new, innovative research and development (R&D). In 2009 DOE took a page from the Department of Defense R&D strategy book and stood up a new organization known as the Advanced Research Projects Agency for Energy (ARPA E) to stimulate out-of-the-box, high risk/high pay off energy research. The question remains: are these efforts too little, too late to replace finite fossil fuel supplies and reverse the current greenhouse gas trajectory?
Earlier this month, ARPA E held its second annual Energy Innovation Summit to report on progress and generate support for the program in Congress, which, like much of the federal government is facing large budget reductions. The summit drew more than 2000 participants from industry and the scientific and technical communities in academia and the national labs demonstrating the widespread interest in addressing these critical issues. Speakers included representatives from DOE including Secretary Chu and ARPA E director Arun Majumdar, elected officials, stakeholders and representatives of the research community. Secretary Chu emphasized that development of “game changing technologies” such as the internet and global positioning satellites (GPS) were a direct result of the Defense Research Projects Agency (DARPA).
Strong bi-partisan support was expressed by Senators Mark Udall, Lisa Murkowski, and Lamar Alexander and Representative Steven Israel as well as Secretary of the Navy Ray Maybus.
While important to get consensus on these issues, Republicans Murkowski (AL) and Alexander (TN) managed to support the motherhood and apple pie aspects of energy research without acknowledging that just as moms need money to provide for their families and apple pies aren’t much good without apples, energy research doesn’t grow on trees.
ARPA E started with a relatively modest budget of $150M that was supposed to rise quickly to over $1B – Instead, Congress is now considering reducing the ARPA E budget by a factor of three (down to merely $50M) if it survives at all.
Former California Governor, Arnold Schwarzenegger gave a humorous but inspired talk that got the crowd “all pumped up” and resulted in a standing ovation. Schwarzenegger suggested there wasn’t much point in trying to convince global warming skeptics if they didn’t get it by now… but there were many areas where common ground could be found including energy security and health effects from “dirty” energy.
After all, who wouldn’t be moved by the fact that more than 100,000 premature deaths per year are attributed to petroleum related illness and the fact that one in six kids in California’s central valley is on a respirator? This may have been true in the pre-Tea Party (PTP) days but sadly, (Arnold not withstanding) moderate and reasonable Republicans willing to stand on principle are few and far between nowadays.
Schwarzenegger pointed to innovative energy policies adopted in California that are leading to real progress including energy efficiency regulations that have resulted in reduction of 40% compared with the rest of the nation, improved fuel efficiency standards for vehicles, and an aggressive renewable energy goal for California of 33% by 2020.
Cutting edge energy innovations made possible by ARPA E were featured including:
• the Makani Airborne Wind Turbine, a wind turbine on a light-weight wing that flies at high altitudes where wind currents are strong and power is transferred to the ground via a conductive tether (see video below),
• Solar cells that can be cast into molds directly from molten silicon, improving production efficiencies by 50% and significantly reducing production cost compared with traditional methods in which wafers are sawed off a large ingot,
• A low-cost catalytic system that uses solar energy to split water into oxygen and hydrogen fuel for storage and use when the sun is not available for direct power,
• A passive, optimized wind turbine design inspired by airplane jet engine technology,
• A new battery storage technology that combines the approach of rechargeable batteries, fuel cells, and flow batteries to enable cost-effective, energy storage systems that can be used for transportation and the electric grid applications,
• A fuel-free compressed air energy storage technology to enable low-cost storage of energy to the grid and to facilitate use of intermittent renewable power sources such as solar and wind.
DOE’s take home message from the ARPA E Innovation Summit was that energy independence and security and reduction in greenhouse gas emissions through innovative renewable power are attainable goals. Getting there however will require a significant investment and a concerted team effort from our nation’s science and technology innovators. To make matters worse, we have a very narrow window of opportunity to achieve these extremely challenging goals. Republicans in Congress have all of a sudden gotten fiscal religion and are preaching the need for a balanced budget without regard to the need to eliminate unemployment, provide affordable quality health care, improve education, and most significantly in terms of our long-term future on this planet, solve the energy and climate change crises we face. Where was all this concern for eliminating the deficit during Bush’s eight years of escalating debt? Time is running out and obstructionism in the name of fiscal responsibility is inexcusable.
Check out the really cool video of a test run of the Makani Airborne Wind Turbine: Part Kite; Part Flying Wing; Part Hovercraft;Part Wind Turbine… and it actually works!