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Wednesday, February 27, 2013

EXCITING SUSTAINABLE ENERGY DEVELOPMENTS recently had an article by Jim Snyder of Bloomberg (right) with a somewhat deceptive title, "Cultivating Bipartisan Support for Biofuel from Germs," that unknowingly diminished the relevance of the Advanced Research Projects Agency - Energy (or ARPA-E).  This office, recommended by the National Academy of Sciences, and in 2007 created by Congress, was not funded until 2009 through the economic stimulus program, receiving $400 million.  

This effort is modeled after the Defense Advanced Research Project Agency (DARPA), which is staffed by a bunch of geniuses who provide funds for technologies that have long-term promise for making a difference.  They, effectively, created the internet, for example.  I got into some hot water by posting on "Microbial Biofuels and DARPA in the Twilight Zone," for they were, indeed, stepping into the darkness on this program.  Basically, a rule of academic funding is don't bite the hand that feeds you.

ARPA-E, through the Department of Energy, has now gone through four cycles of funding, and the subject matter, "biofuel germs," is representative of topics currently supported.  What types of projects are supported?

ARPA-E focuses on energy challenges that could radically improve U.S. Economic prosperity, national security, and environmental well being.  We invest in short-term research projects that can have transformational impacts. ARPA-E does not fund basic or incremental research.

Grants range from $250,000 to $10 million, with 285 projects have receiving $770 million.  Spread annually, this is approximately one-half of one percent of the U.S. Department of Energy budget (and the USDOE is only 1% of the Federal budget).  More than anything else, ARPA-E is a matchmaker.  An additional $450 million has been cost-matched by industry.  Universities get almost half the funds, with industry receiving 29%, national labs 7.5% and non-profits the remainder.  This is not that $16 billion loan guarantee program that, in part, gave $240 million to Solyndra.

The USDOE has long had a basic science program, funded at close to $5 billion/year, but these tend to be more for the sake of human knowledge, with minor focus on short term energy production.  ARPA-E supports those developments which are high risk and  high reward with a mission to commercialize as soon as possible.  Money has gone to flow batteries, genetic engineering of microorganisms, research to make biofuels from carbon dioxide and E. coli, and so on.  Cheryl Martin (left) is director.

Got to give credit to then Congresslady Mazie Hirono, who got rejected in her attempt to increase the 2013 ARPA-E budget.  Republican control of the House.  An attempt to move funding away from fossil fuels.  The pursuit had no chance.  Five years ago one of my HuffPo's was titled:  "Why Do Republicans Like Fossil Fuels and Not Care That Much for the Environment?"

ARPA-E thus has detractors, mostly conservatives and Republicans, who feel that industry should be doing this.  However, the annual Energy Innovation Summit in D.C. that ends today includes Senator Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska) of the Energy and Natural Resources Committee and Senator Lamar Alexander (R-Tennessee), who in the past has criticized subsidies for solar and wind, as speakers.  Elon Musk of Tesla and T. Boone Pickens are also featured.  

Best as I can tell, Hawaii has not won an ARPA-E grant:

Want to learn more about ARPA-E?  Click HERE.  Plus, here is an analysis on how to compete.


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