ARPA-E (Advanced Research Project Agency – Energy) invests in risky, but potentially disruptive, early-stage research on clean, affordable, energy technologies – much as the Defense Advanced Research Project Agency (DARPA) invested in radical ideas for defense (with funding from the U.S. military sector, a “dedicated customer”, while ARPA-E target open market and commodity applications). DARPA was the DOE agency responsible for successful technological innovations such as Internet and the stealth technology found in the F117A.
It’s already a long story: recognizing the need to reevaluate the way the United States spurs innovation, the National Academies released a 2006 report, “Rising Above the Gathering Storm”, that included the recommendation to establish ARPA-E within the Department of Energy (DOE). ARPA-E was created in 2007, but it didn’t receive a budget until April 2009 with $400 million from the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (ARRA), when President Obama launched it in a speech at NAS. In its first year, ARPA-E awarded $363 million in Recovery Act funding to 121 groundbreaking energy projects, with approximately 39% of projects led by universities, 33% by small businesses, 20% by large businesses, 5% by national labs, and 3% by non-profits. Funding was recently at risk and reduced as explained in http://www.innovationpolicy.org/arpa-es-semi-new-lease-on-life even if U.S. Department of Energy Secretary Steven Chu announced in April 2011 that up to $130 million from ARPA-E will be made available to develop five new program areas that could spark critical breakthrough technologies and secure America’s energy future, two months earlier ARPA-E announced six of its projects have secured more than $100 million in outside private capital investment.
Radical innovation as in ARPA-E http://arpa-e.energy.gov/ means seeking:
- Entirely new tech approaches to existing problems, in order to bring a freshness, excitement, and sense of mission.
- Seeking and developing disruptive concepts to build “Disruptive” capabilities in entirely new areas with broad impact. “The best way to predict the future is to help create it”
- Opportunities to bring together silo-ed disciplines, in order to attract many of the best and brightest minds—those of experienced scientists and engineers, and, especially, those of students and young researchers, including persons in the entrepreneurial world;
It can be achieved by these ARPA-E organizational and cultural attitudes:
- STRUCTURE: distinct, nimble, flexible, “flat” and sparse org; capable of sustaining for long periods of time those projects whose promise remains real, while phasing out programs that do not prove to be as promising as anticipated; Risk-taking, committed PMs.
- DNA: highest standard of excellence, aggressive, always questioning assumptions, output oriented
- FOCUS: high-risk/high-reward, at the forefront, addressing white space, translational stage projects; creative “out-of-the-box” transformational energy research where success would provide dramatic benefits for the nation
- APPROACH: promoting breakthrough technical advancement with rigorous consideration for commercialization, deployment, and impact at every step of the process. Conceived as a new tool to bridge the gap between basic energy research and development/industrial innovation. Honest broker among competing approaches. Success depends on its relationships with other organizations and its understanding of the current and projected security context.
Therefore ARPA-E as an R&D funding agency, identifies and supports high-risk, high-reward, advanced energy technologies, helping to forge alliances between the innovators and adopters – in whatever country or industry they might lie, but it aims to provide:
- commercialization support, not just to solve technical challenges,
- national (US) security through economic and environmental one, too:
- Reduce Energy-Related Emissions
- Reduce Energy Imports
- Improve Energy Efficiency
- Ensure U.S. technological lead
Among its programs are initiatives (partially related to ICT) for:
- higher-energy-density batteries for electric vehicles (BEEST, Batteries for Electrical Energy Storage for Transportation: to allow electric cars with longer 300 miles range and lower life-cycle cost than gasoline cars),
- more energy-efficient cooling systems for buildings (BEETIT Building Energy Efficiency Through Innovative Thermo-devices),
- grid-scale energy storage (GRIDS, Grid-scale Rampable Intermittent Dispatachable Storage, to address high variability, up to minutes, in renewables, by 2-5 cheaper solutions with minimized response time, compared with pumped hydro and underground compressed air, to enable wide deployment), a different project is addressing Thermal Energy Storage with Supercritical Fluids.
- software and hardware to radically improve power grid management and transmission (GENI Green Electricity Network Integration)
- efficient conversion of sunlight to fuels (Electrofuels by electricity + non-photosynthetic microbes etc.).
Arun Majumdar, Director, ARPA-E, stated in 2010: “The widespread use of fossil fuels has long driven the engine of economic growth, and yet our dependence on these fuels severely threatens our national and environmental security due to our growing foreign energy dependence as well as climate change. Business as usual is not an option, as the outcome will be devastating. This is true not only for the US, but also for all nations in this interconnected world. The nation that successfully grows its economy with more efficient energy use, a clean domestic energy supply, and a smart energy infrastructure will lead the global economy of the 21st century.” And in 2011 at the 2011 ARPA-E Energy Innovation Summit: “What ARPA-e does best is identify the opportunities and create the competition. And eventually, the market will pick the winners.”