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.
• 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.
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