The Most Important Federal Agency You’ve Never Heard Of

With a name straight out of a WALL-E future, it’s ARPA-E, also known as the “U.S. Advanced Research Projects Agency – Energy” (don’t confuse them with DARPA-E, its cousin that focuses on defense).

Why is ARPA-E so important?  Because this Department of Energy group is searching out and funding those moonshot — or sunshot — technologies that will give us the energy breakthroughs we need to fight climate change.  If we’re going to find the better battery to finally wean us off oil and into electric drives, or build the cheap energy storage device to capture surplus renewables and truly decarbonize the grid, or make our solar panels even more efficient and cheap, chances are ARPA-E will be involved in making that happen.  From its website:

Since 2009, ARPA-E has funded over 360 potentially transformational energy technology projects. Many of these projects have already demonstrated early indicators of technical success. For example, ARPA-E awardees have:

  • Developed a 1 megawatt silicon carbide transistor the size of a fingernail
  • Engineered microbes that use hydrogen and carbon dioxide to make liquid transportation fuel
  • Pioneered a near-isothermal compressed air energy storage system

Technical achievements like these have spurred millions of dollars in follow-on private-sector funding to a number of ARPA-E projects. In addition, many ARPA-E awardees have formed start-up or spin-off companies or partnered with other parts of the government and industry to advance their technologies.

If I were in charge of the federal budget, I would fund this agency to the brim.  So I’m pleased to see ARPA-E announcing another round of funding, this time for $125 million for “renewable and non-renewable electricity generation, transmission, storage and distribution, as well as energy efficiency technologies.”  The funds can also go to transportation-oriented projects, including those focused on fuels, electrification, and energy efficiency.  You can read more here.

While I know it’s a huge stretch to imagine happening, I hope this new congress supports the agency in the budget process.  It just may be the best hope we have for finding and developing the technologies needed to truly solve climate change.

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