Environment Blog

Betting On Energy Breakthroughs

Obama administration hopes high risk, high reward energy science brings revolutionary returns

February 18, 2010

During his recent speech at the 2010 Technology, Entertainment, Design (TED) Conference, Bill Gates expressed what should already be obvious: if the world is going to break its dependence on cheap fossil fuels any time soon, massive-scale energy innovation is required.  There is no longer time for just incremental advances.  “What we’re going to have to do at a global scale is create a new system,” he said, according to CNN. “So we need energy miracles.”

Gates thinks it’s imperative that the world have an energy portfolio by 2050 that excludes coal and natural gas, and features carbon-capture and sequestration (CCS) and nuclear, solar photovoltaic, solar thermal and wind power technologies.  At the current rate of innovation, however, that goal is a lot closer to science fiction than it is to reality.

Still, it seems the Obama administration agrees with Gates’s general thesis.  The proposed 2011 federal budget eliminates 12 tax breaks for oil, gas and coal, and calls for $300 million to fund the 3-year-old Advanced Research Projects Agency-Energy (ARPA-E).

The administration hopes that by giving researchers the funds they need to rapidly scale promising laboratory ideas up to the marketplace — a process that normally takes many years — ARPA-E  can catalyze a pace of innovation that would make Gates’s goals for 2050 more realistic.

Secretary of Energy Steven Chu told ScienceInsider he’s confident that funding ARPA-E, which received its first $400 million from 2009’s $787 billion economic stimulus package, is “money well-spent” if the agency is managed as well as its role model, the Defense Advanced Research Projects-Agency (DARPA).  DARPA, the heavily funded, high-risk, high-reward research arm of the defense department, invented the internet, stealth technology, and the M16 assault rifle.  It is currently working on things like limb regeneration technology, bionic bug spies, and artificial, immortal organisms with molecular kill-switches.

As for ARPA-E, its website says it focuses only on “technologies promising genuine transformation in the ways we generate, store and utilize energy.”  It continues, “The Department of Energy invests heavily in conventional energy research; ARPA-E is not intended to augment these efforts.”

Proponents of the agency believe that if even a small fraction of the projects it funds make it to the marketplace, it will be a success.  In other words, the purpose of ARPA-E is not to hit for average — it’s to knock the ball out of the park.

For example, take carbon capture and sequestration, a technology often cited by proponents of “clean coal.” The Obama administration supports clean coal, even though, as the Department of Energy declared in its most recent (2007) CCS technology roadmap, “carbon sequestration is in its infancy” as a technology and research discipline.  For both political and ecological reasons, then, the administration is hoping for a quick maturation process.  ARPA-E is betting over $11 million on a wide range of approaches to the problem of CCS, including a $2.25 million synthetic biology project to design an artificial version of the enzyme carbonic anhydrase — the fast-acting protein machine that organisms use to manage carbon dioxide levels.

In all, there are 37 ARPA-E funded projects, aimed at revolutionizing the fields of energy storage, biofuel production, carbon capture, renewable power, building efficiency, vehicle technology, and waste-heat capture.

Is ARPA-E the key to the large-scale energy innovation we need to become carbon-free?  Well, it definitely won’t be if Congress refuses to fund it.  Even if it is funded, we’ll have to wait and see whether it is actually capable of producing breakthrough innovation.  But if DARPA’s success is any indication, there is reason to believe the high-risk, high-reward funding approach is worth a shot.  Who knows, maybe we’ll get a miracle or two out of it.

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Devan Schwartz says:

A good synopsis of the potential future of energy policy in the United States. Is Bill Gates involving himself in energy policy and research through the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, or in other ways?

Tom Figarelle says:

Good article. I would also advocate increased federal appropriations to higher education for similar research, especially as states cut budgets and hinder such campus-based projects.

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