The lit­tle agency that does

Why the Ad­vanced Re­search Projects Agency-En­ergy (ARPA-E) must be funded, not elim­i­nated

The Washington Times Daily - - OPINION - By David M. Hart David M. Hart is a se­nior fel­low at the In­for­ma­tion Tech­nol­ogy and In­no­va­tion Foun­da­tion and pro­fes­sor of pub­lic pol­icy and direc­tor of the Cen­ter for Sci­ence and Tech­nol­ogy Pol­icy at Ge­orge Ma­son Univer­sity.

Cleaner, more se­cure, more af­ford­able en­ergy has been a na­tional goal since Amer­ica’s found­ing. Whalers braved storms for it in the 1800s. Diplo­mats sought to se­cure sup­ply lines for it more re­cently. In the last few years, a lit­tle-known fed­eral agency with a long, com­pli­cated name has found a bet­ter way to get us closer to this elu­sive goal. The Ad­vanced Re­search Projects Agency — En­ergy (ARPA-E) does it by more ef­fec­tively us­ing the na­tion’s most es­sen­tial re­source: in­ge­nu­ity.

Yet, just as the na­tion’s still-mod­est bet on ARPA-E is be­gin­ning to pay off big-time, the Trump ad­min­is­tra­tion has pro­posed that we throw in our cards. The pres­i­dent’s pro­posed bud­get for the com­ing fis­cal year would elim­i­nate ARPA-E. With En­ergy Sec­re­tary Rick Perry set to tes­tify be­fore the House Ap­pro­pri­a­tions Com­mit­tee this week on his depart­ment’s bud­get, Congress should in­stead hold on to this win­ning hand. In fact, it should dou­ble down on this lit­tle agency that is do­ing big things.

Bring­ing change to the en­ergy sec­tor is hard. It is com­posed of a mas­sive set of in­dus­tries with im­mense po­lit­i­cal clout. Not sur­pris­ingly, the fed­eral gov­ern­ment has gen­er­ally sought to pro­tect it over the years. The U.S. Depart­ment of En­ergy, de­spite its name, spends much more of its bud­get on de­fense than it does on en­ergy. Tax breaks and fa­vor­able reg­u­la­tion, not to men­tion de­fense and for­eign pol­icy, have helped keep the in­cum­bents locked in place.

Congress and the Ge­orge W. Bush ad­min­is­tra­tion broke with this tra­di­tion, though, when they au­tho­rized ARPA-E in 2007. At the rec­om­men­da­tion of the Na­tional Academy of Sciences, law­mak­ers sought to repli­cate in the en­ergy field a con­cept that has worked ex­traor­di­nar­ily well in de­fense. The De­fense Ad­vanced Re­search Projects Agency (DARPA) has re­peat­edly rev­o­lu­tion­ized war-fight­ing over its 50-year his­tory with break­throughs such as stealth and GPS. To bring about such in­no­va­tions, DARPA has reg­u­larly had to chal­lenge the con­ven­tional wis­dom in the Pen­tagon and the de­fense sec­tor.

In its much shorter his­tory and with only a 10th of the fund­ing that DARPA re­ceives, ARPA-E has be­gun to do the same in its field. A Na­tional Acad­e­mies’ as­sess­ment re­leased last week shows that this agency is find­ing and ex­plor­ing the “white space” in en­ergy in­no­va­tion — do­mains of tech­nol­ogy that are too daunt­ing for ven­ture cap­i­tal­ists and big en­ergy com­pa­nies to en­ter. ARPA-E’s vi­sion­ary pro­gram di­rec­tors, the vast ma­jor­ity of whom have sig­nif­i­cant in­dus­trial ex­pe­ri­ence, are boldly seek­ing new sup­plies of en­ergy and new ways to store and man­age it with the po­ten­tial to trans­form in­dus­tries like elec­tric­ity, au­to­mo­biles, con­struc­tion, and ap­pli­ances. As the Acad­e­mies’ re­view panel pointed out, it is too soon to ex­pect these ef­forts to have re­sulted in rad­i­cal change in the way we live. But ARPA-E has al­ready created a cul­ture of in­no­va­tion in an en­vi­ron­ment that is highly risk-averse. It re­cruits out­stand­ing tech­ni­cal ex­perts from out­side of gov­ern­ment and gives them the free­dom to pur­sue their vi­sions for a lim­ited pe­riod of time. It prefers to fund start-ups and lab­o­ra­tory teams with the po­ten­tial to be­come start-ups, be­cause they tend to think about en­ergy chal­lenges and op­por­tu­ni­ties in the most orig­i­nal ways.

ARPA-E’s an­nual bud­get of about $300 mil­lion has al­ready en­abled com­pa­nies that it has sup­ported to se­cure more than $1.8 bil­lion in follow-on fund­ing from pri­vate in­vestors. 1366 Tech­nolo­gies, for in­stance, ex­pects to re­duce the cost of so­lar wafer man­u­fac­tur­ing by 50 per­cent by 2020. Draw­ing on break­throughs made pos­si­ble by ARPA-E’s R&D sup­port, it is now build­ing a fac­tory in up­state New York that prom­ises to help bring this out­sourced in­dus­try back to the United States.

Foro En­ergy, to take another ex­am­ple, has been granted 45 patents to de­velop a sys­tem that uses lasers to drill through hard rock more quickly, pre­cisely, and safely than cur­rent drilling equip­ment. This sys­tem could un­lock pre­vi­ously un­tapped geo­ther­mal en­ergy re­sources as well as make it eas­ier to clean up tapped-out oil wells. These op­por­tu­ni­ties sim­ply would not have ex­isted with­out ARPA-E. As the re­view panel con­cluded, it “has funded re­search that no other fun­der was sup­port­ing ... . ”

The panel also hailed ARPA-E as “a pos­i­tive agent of change in DOE and the fed­eral gov­ern­ment” as a whole. Its prac­tices and cul­ture are be­gin­ning to be repli­cated in other of­fices and agen­cies. Elim­i­nat­ing ARPA-E would there­fore not only cut off a key source for dis­rup­tive en­ergy in­no­va­tion, it would also cut off a key source of in­no­va­tion in gov­er­nance and pub­lic man­age­ment in gen­eral.

ARPA-E is a fed­eral agency that gets stuff done. That alone would be wor­thy of praise, but the fact that in do­ing so it is mak­ing real progress to­ward achiev­ing one of the na­tion’s most im­por­tant and dif­fi­cult goals makes this fact worth shout­ing from the hill­tops. Cut­ting rather than grow­ing its bud­get would be fool­ish. Killing it would be tragic.

The De­fense Ad­vanced Re­search Projects Agency (DARPA) has re­peat­edly rev­o­lu­tion­ized war-fight­ing over its 50-year his­tory with break­throughs such as stealth and GPS.



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