Bacteria that produce gasoline. “Blown wing” technology for wind turbines. Enzymes that capture carbon dioxide. Batteries that store solar energy overnight. This is a short list of the 37 projects recently selected as the recipients of $151 million in research grants from the Advanced Research Projects Agency-Energy, or ARPA-E. In short, it’s the Department of Energy’s version of going rogue.
ARPA-E is a new agency within the DOE that aims to fund cutting-edge energy and climate research. This may not be the conventional approach of government programs, but it is not unprecedented: ARPA-E is modeled on a Defense Department program, known as DARPA, that played a significant role in the commercialization of microchips and the Internet along with other high-tech innovations.
ARPA-E was created by Congress in August 2007 under the America COMPETES Act, but was left unfunded until Congress authorized $400 million for the agency in this year’s stimulus bill. The agency began to mobilize its resources this fall. In September, Arun Majumdar, a scientist at the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory in California, was confirmed as the agency’s director and soon after announced the winners of the first round of proposal solicitations. The 37 winning projects represent 1% of submitted proposals and include high-risk and high-payoff ideas and technologies in all stages of development. ARPA-E hopes that down the line the more promising projects will get picked up by venture capitalists or major companies willing to invest more resources to bring these projects from the laboratory to the marketplace.
The focus on high risk and high payoff means that ARPA-E must expect failure as well as success. Energy Secretary Steven Chu, one of the original visionaries of the ARPA-E concept, believes a few projects could have “a transformative impact.” In this economic climate, many investors overlook high-risk, but also high-reward, energy research and technology development. ARPA-E is an innovative and welcome approach to keep these projects in the pipeline, as a radical breakthrough in advanced technology could facilitate a U.S.-led transition to a global clean energy economy.
Olivia Nix is the Solutions intern
At the Environment and Public Works hearing on Tuesday, both Secretary LaHood of the Department of Transportation (DOT) and Administrator Jackson of the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) explained that emissions reductions progress is already underway in the transportation sector. Sec. LaHood stated, “We have much to do, but we are not waiting to begin taking aggressive and meaningful action.”
While the Congress has been working towards establishing comprehensive climate legislation, the DOT, EPA, and Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) have been collaborating to develop Federal policies that could help create sustainable communities. The aim is to support and shape state and local land use decisions and infrastructure investments to develop livable communities where people have the option to drive less. According to the DOT, on an average day American adults travel 25 million miles in trips of a half-mile or less and almost 60 percent use motor vehicles for this travel. Walking, biking, and riding transit, regardless of the area where an American might live, are excellent alternatives. “If the presence of these alternatives promotes less driving, then that will reduce road congestion, reduce pollutants and greenhouse gases, and use land more efficiently."
The hiatus on nuclear plant construction might be about to end. Renewed interest in nuclear power has been spurred by existing government incentives, and comprehensive climate policy will provide further impetus.
So what does proposed legislation do to promote nuclear power? The energy bill passed by the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee (S.1462), the energy and climate bill introduced by Senators Kerry and Boxer (S.1733), and the energy and climate bill passed in the House (H.R. 2454) all include provisions to expand nuclear power generation. Most importantly, the latter two bills include a greenhouse gas cap-and-trade program. This will send a long-term price signal to drive investment in low-carbon technologies, including nuclear power, and will make the cost of electricity generated from new nuclear power lower relative to traditional fossil fuel-based generation.
Sen. Murkowski opened a briefing on Post-Combustion Carbon Capture at the Senate last week by asserting technology is the key to addressing our energy needs. The Senator said that advancing technology will allow the U.S. to move towards a low-carbon future. Sen. Murkowski is correct.
And cap and trade will guide us to just that: advancing technological innovation. As Sen. Murkowski put it, our current energy technology has an "environmental price," and a clear signal regarding the price of carbon is imperative to spur R&D in technologies with a lower environmental price. Cap and trade allows the government to set the policy objective – to reduce greenhouse gas emissions – and businesses to decide how to best achieve the objective in the most cost-effective manner. It will give industry experts exactly what they are seeking: a clear signal that financial incentives exist for low-greenhouse gas technological innovation, whether its carbon capture and sequestration discussed at the briefing, or nuclear, wind, tidal, or other technologies.
Read more about technology policies and their relationship to cap and trade here.