Aiming for the moon: Why America needs the ARPA-E

March 5, 2012 by  
Filed under Wind Energy Tips

We have looked at some of the technologies that were on show at last week’s much talked about ARPA-E Summit, but what were people talking about at the gathering hosted by the US government’s innovation agency? This year’s annual event in Washington attracted a high-powered list of attendees and speakers, who were there not just to stress the importance of funding innovation and transformative clean technology, but also to shore up support for ARPA-E which, as Inside Climate News put it, is “in a pickle,” with the $455 million it was allocated in the 2011 and 2012 budgets quickly drying up.

According to reports, the DOE has canceled six ARPA-E projects since September, worth a combined $US14.1 million in funding – according to a DOE spokesperson, Treasury got $3.7 million of that back. And with the appetite among private investors for these projects seemingly on the wane, as the Wall Street Journal reported last Wednesday, things are not looking good. As Inside Climate News points out, it’s private investors who can bankroll the factories that “moonshot” technologies need to deploy.

Among those throwing their support behind ARPA-E, and its role in incubating new technologies, were Bill Clinton, Bill Gates, former Walmart CEO Lee Scott and Susan Hockfield, outgoing president of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, says the blog. All argued that projects supported by the ARPA-E – which is modeled on a Department of Defense program that helped create the Internet and GPS systems – could change the global energy landscape given more time and funding. And funding, in particular, is what’s lacking.

“It’s crazy how little we’re funding energy,” Microsoft founder and philanthropist Bill Gates told the conference last Tuesday, adding that energy research was underfunded by a factor of two, in terms of current US government investment. Gates pointed to the high failure rate of tech research – potentially 90 per cent of the projects in ARPA-E won’t make a dent in the future of energy technology, he said, adding that: “This is a very complex set of technologies, so we need literally thousands of companies trying these technologies so we can get the 10 or 20 that [make it.]”

Gates also pointed out that our expectations of the rate of progress on clean energy technology had become unrealistic, and that the energy revolution would be much slower than the IT revolution. “The IT revolution is the exception that has warped people’s minds in how quickly things work,” Gates said. “It’s very different than having a software company – or even a chip factory, where your innovation cycles are two or three years, and your dependence on government policy is very low.” In the case of energy innovation, “people underestimate how far away we are,” Gates said. “That’s partly why we can end up underfunding the innovative work that needs to go on.”

Also at the conference was Amol Deshpande, the well-known venture capitalist from Kleiner Perkins Caufield Byers, who spoke about the “big problems” in agriculture, and the effort to solve them, in which KPCB is investing. GreenTech Media reports that Deshpande spoke about recovering water contaminated by agriculture, generating energy from food waste, and replacing animals with alternative means of delivering protein. “If you want to talk about agricultural land use, water use, [and] energy use, it really boils down to one thing: livestock,” said Deshpande. “To me, if there is a place to attack the[se] problem[s], that is where I would attack it. Everything else is minor in comparison.”

Bill Clinton also joined the voices calling for much more money to be invested in ARPA-E, to go towards the agency’s work developing solar, batteries and electrofuels. Greentech Media reports that the ex-president’s “most novel suggestion” focused on transmission, which the blog described as “another sticky issue for the federal government that Bill Gates brought up the previous day at the conference.” It seems the US has more than 300,000MW of wind power waiting to come online due to transmission constraints, according to the American Wind Energy Association. And Clinton suggested the best way to remedy this was to build an infrastructure bank – a solution which, he pointed out – once had bipartisan support.

Clinton also questioned why the US did not have a federal finance model for capturing greenhouse gases from landfills and agricultural waste, says Greentech Media. And he argued for a more cohesive federal policy on energy efficiency – the so-called low-hanging fruit of the low-carbon economy, that Clinton is most closely associated with. The Clinton Foundation helped build the framework for Obama’s Better Buildings Initiative, which will provide $4 billion for commercial building energy efficiency retrofits.

Finally, at the ARPA-E concluding plenary session last Wednesday, the outgoing President of the MIT, Susan Hockfield, offered five tips on how to solve America’s energy challenges, says especially when it comes to manufacturing. According to the blog The Energy Fix, these can be roughly summed up as: Industry should partner with researchers and government to create innovative US-made products; government funding needs to pay more attention to the demands of the marketplace, especially  cost-effectiveness; the size and scale of government, especially the Department of Defense, should be used to deploy new clean technologies wherever possible and practical; find ways to drive down the cost of manufacturing – which Hockfield dubbed “the ‘do-or-die gateway’ for energy manufacturing breakthroughs;” and recognise that venture funding of technology is very different from clean technology funding.

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