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Wednesday, 18 October 2017 07:32

Trump Administration Set to Dismantle Innovative Energy Agency

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Windmill 1018wrp optThe base of a windmill. (Photo: Sandra / Flickr)You don't have to be a science geek to have heard of DARPA, the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, but unless you like digging deep into Department of Energy, you are unlikely to know about ARPA-E, the Advanced Research Projects Agency-Energy. DARPA was created in 1958 during the Eisenhower administration as a response to the Soviet Union's Sputnik launching. DARPA-funded projects have had some incredible – some might call revolutionary – success, providing technologies that influenced the creation of the Internet, the G.P.S., and numerous military and national security projects. In July of last year, the agency announced its Cyber Grand Challenge (CGC), which aims to combat security vulnerabilities.

In Michael Lewis' extensive Vanity Fair article about Rick Perry's Department of Energy, a small section of the piece talked about ARPA-E. ARPA-E was developed during the George W. Bush administration, and funded during President Obama's first administration. It is intended to be the "energy equivalent of DARPA. Now, the agency is facing Team Trump's chopping block.

ARPA-E was the place where "wildly creative ideas," and out-of-the-box thinking would find a home. To non-scientists, some of the research may seem a bit fanciful, non-productive, or even downright nutty. At ARPA-E, researcher would be given license to explore what might be thought of as unexplorable. And, at $300 million a year, who knows where small grants to researchers might lead.

"The idea behind ARPA-E was to find the best …ideas that the free market had declined to finance and make sure they were given a chance," Lewis wrote.

"Secretary Perry says he supports innovation, but it's not clear how he can do so under proposed budget cuts that would defund clean energy research across the department, including drastic cuts to the Office of Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy (EERE), the proposed elimination of the Advanced Research Projects Administration-Energy (ARPA-E), and shrinking clean energy budgets at the National Science Labs," the NRDC's Elizabeth Noll recently wrote at the Natural Resources Defense Council's Expert Blog.

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"ARPA-E projects have created over 30 new U.S. companies and attracted more than $1.25 billion in new, private-sector funding," Noll pointed out. "Sixty projects partner with other government agencies, such as the Department of the Navy, to advance the nation's security and economic prosperity."

The original head of ARPA-E was Arun Majumdar, who grew up in India, "moved to the United States, and became a world-class materials scientist," Lewis pointed out. Majumbar, former deputy director of the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, told Lewis that he was up against such stalwart conservative institution as the Heritage Foundation, whose 2011 budget plan eliminated the project.

At a lunch with the guys that composed the budget recommendation, Majumdar told Lewis "they were very gracious, but they didn't know anything. They were not scientists in any sense. They were ideologues. Their point was that the market should take care of everything."

And while the Heritage folks weren't impressed with ARPA-E, one of the Heritage attendees – who is a Heritage funder -- was familiar enough, and impressed with DARPA, that the faux budget restored ARPA-E funding.

In June, E&E News reported that, "A House appropriations subcommittee advanced a $37.5 billion energy and water bill that would slash funding for renewable and efficiency programs and eliminate ARPA-E."    

Despite being threatened by zeroing it out in 2018, over the past month, recently-released ARPA-E funds have been awarded to projects related to improving the viability of solar power and thermal energy storage; two projects "to develop renewable energy from Hawaiian seaweed, following large investments in other parts of the nation in a new push toward the potentially groundbreaking development of seaweed-based biofuels," according to oilprice.com; a UCI project studying offshore kelp cultivation.

Writing for arstechnica.com, Megan Geuss noted that ARPA-E "distributes grants … to advance energy-related technology, especially favoring projects that might be uneconomic for private companies to fund. But [those] projects … may not be possible in the future, as the Trump administration has asked for all ARPA-E funding to be cut in the 2018 budget."