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ARPA-E Confab Draws Unusual Supporters

Key Republican Party leaders back Clean Energy R&D program

by Jeff Johnson
March 14, 2011 | A version of this story appeared in Volume 89, Issue 11

Credit: Newscom
Actor and former California governor Arnold Schwarzenegger channeled Conan the Barbarian when praising energy researchers as “people of action.”
Credit: Newscom
Actor and former California governor Arnold Schwarzenegger channeled Conan the Barbarian when praising energy researchers as “people of action.”

Despite moves by many Republican members of Congress to cut Department of Energy funds, two key party leaders voiced strong support this month for at least one basic clean energy research program: the Advanced Research Projects Agency-Energy (ARPA-E).

Arnold Schwarzenegger, Hollywood movie star and former California governor, and Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska), ranking Republican member of the Senate Energy & Natural Resources Committee and a longtime advocate of oil and gas drilling and production, were speaking at DOE’s Energy Innovation Summit. Held this month in Washington, D.C., the summit attracted more than 2,000 clean energy technologists and investors to discuss and display technologies under development through ARPA-E support.

According to Schwarzenegger, ARPA-E research and technologies are needed to transform the world of energy. The U.S., he said, must move beyond debates about global warming and instead promote clean energy development for jobs, health, energy security, and economics. Clean energy business has been good for California, he said, and it is the state’s fastest growing economic sector. California, he added, draws one-third of the world’s cleantech venture capital.

Murkowski, too, stressed the importance to her state of new advanced energy technologies funded through government programs. Although federal money will be tight, she told C&EN, “I want to make sure we have adequate resources for ARPA-E because it pushes us. Existing technologies are important and we need to allow them to be a bridge for the future, but we have to be pushing ourselves with new energy programs.”

Schwarzenegger and Murkowski addressed summit attendees who are mostly technologists who had won or hope to win ARPA-E’s grants for high-risk, high-gain energy R&D projects.

The scientists, manufacturers, investors, and government officials hobnobbed and hustled, bragging about their projects and how they could change the world. Like trade fairs, the summit included more than 200 booths. But most of these reflected the nature of the basic ARPA-E research. They looked more like wordy posterboard presentations at a high school science fair than the elaborate displays prepared by large corporations and research laboratories at most business and science gatherings.

That geeky earnestness reflects the nature of the program itself. ARPA-E was created to fund game-changing energy research and find technological breakthroughs that could eventually penetrate the energy marketplace. The grants average $2 million to $5 million and run between two and three years. DOE experts provide frequent advice to grant winners and closely monitor their research. The funding supports risky technologies that are unlikely to get corporate backing but are the kind that could become a key to President Barack Obama’s goal of developing a U.S. clean energy economy (C&EN, Jan. 4, 2010, page 19).

Created in 2009, ARPA-E is currently funding 121 projects, culled from 4,786 concept papers. Projects are diverse: One makes solar wafers by adapting window manufacturing technologies to flow molten silicon, another speeds up drilling for geothermal applications, and still others focus on advanced batteries, energy-efficient building technologies, and more.

Despite the interest among inventors and clean energy advocates, Congress has given ARPA-E only $15 million, and that came in the initial 2009 appropriation. It got a big boost in 2010, though, when it received $400 million in stimulus money from the American Recovery & Reinvestment Act of 2009.

For 2011, DOE sought about $300 million, but Congress has yet to pass an appropriation bill for this year. Instead, it gave the agency around $50 million. As a result, ARPA-E hasn’t funded a new project in nine months.

The energy summit comes at a critical time, with many GOP congressional members and Obama at loggerheads over the level of government funding for clean energy projects. The President’s budget for the next fiscal year includes a hefty increase in renewable energy funding as well as $520 million for ARPA-E projects. Obama’s 2012 budget proposal would also significantly cut fossil-fuel and natural gas technology programs, which Energy Secretary Steven Chu says are mature technologies that do not need government support.

Many Republicans disagree. During recent congressional hearings, they have said that they do not want fossil-fuel programs cut; they want Obama’s overall budget levels reduced, and many do not support increased funding for renewable energy programs.

But Murkowski was somewhat optimistic and pointed to a recent failed congressional attempt to zero out ARPA-E for the rest of this year. The move was voted down in the House 170-262. “It appears there is strong support in Congress to continue ARPA-E,” she said.

However, she said funding levels are “uncertain” and noted her opposition to Obama’s proposal to cut natural gas, nuclear, and hydropower R&D while bumping up renewable energy funding levels. Still, Murkowski called ARPA-E a “unique program with a unique role,” with its charge of supporting high-risk, high-reward energy projects.

Murkowski urged attendees to adapt promising ARPA-E technologies to the needs of smaller, rural communities, such as those in Alaska. For example, she noted that Alaskans spend 44% of their disposable income on energy, compared with 3 to 6% for the rest of the U.S. Because energy there is so important, she stressed, Alaska is trying to expand its renewable energy sources—wind, geothermal, solar, tidal, and hydropower—as well as oil and natural gas.

“We have a little bit of everything, and that is what makes this time so exciting. We’ve even got solar opportunities being developed right now in the coldest parts of the Arctic,” she added.

In contrast, Schwarzenegger provided a big-picture view of how ARPA-E technologies can play into a U.S.-led energy transformation. He called the attendees “true people of action. You are changing the debate by the work you are doing in energy.”

He then offered the views of Conan the Barbarian, a character he played on film more than 30 years ago. “When asked what is best in life, Conan said, ‘To crush my enemies and see them driven before me and hear the lamentations of their women.’ ”

To wild laughter and applause, Schwarz­enegger continued: “My views have evolved since then, but as you can see, Conan was not big on philosophy, navel-gazing, or complaining. He believed in action, like you. I want to thank you for the great work you are doing and thank you for the changes you are making for the good of the nation.”

As he exited the stage, Schwarzenegger again channeled a past character, this time the Terminator: “I will be back.”


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