The Advanced Research Projects Agency-Energy (ARPA-E) may be the most important federal agency many in the power industry have never heard of. Whatever generation technology you are associated with, ARPA-E’s work will affect its future.

This week the agency held its fourth annual Energy Innovation Summit just outside of Washington, D.C., for somewhere between 2,000 and 3,000 participants. Along with speeches and panels, it offered a Technology Showcase closer to a scientific poster session than a trade show exhibit hall, and that’s a function of the fact that ARPA-E’s mission is to support only very early stage projects.

What Is ARPA-E?

ARPA-E is most often compared with the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA), but the similarities in name can lead to unfair comparisons. DARPA was created in 1958. ARPA-E was authorized by Congress in 2007 and first funded in 2009. That 50-year difference accounts for a lot in the level of innovation the two agencies can take credit for to date. Few four-year-old organizations have much to show for their efforts, especially when their mandate is to provide very early stage kick-start money to out-there technologies that, if they prove feasible, could be transformative for the energy industry.

What’s also often forgotten is that assuming an acceptable level of risk (and committing limited funds to individual projects) is in the DNA of both agencies. Early-stage R&D is by its nature unpredictable. One university researcher I spoke with on Wednesday has received grants from both DARPA and ARPA-E and noted that DARPA’s track record isn’t as impressive as many assume, despite its high-profile successes, including the progenitor of the Internet. This award recipient had a project funded by DARPA that actually met its goals, and many who heard about it expressed surprise that a DARPA-funded project had been successful. There’s a reason early-stage investing is risky: When you’re trying to do something that’s never been done before, there’s no guarantee it will work. In a Tuesday “fireside chat,” outgoing Energy Secretary Steven Chu commented that although ARPA-E hadn’t had any “home runs” yet, it did have some projects on second and third base.

Budgets also are miles apart: DARPA’s proposed fiscal 2013 budget is just shy of $3 billion, while ARPA-E is looking at $325 million.

And, whereas DARPA has from the beginning had a single, dedicated team of customers—the U.S. military—the potential customers for technologies aided by ARPA-E are the motley players in the field of energy creation, distribution, and use—and their equally non-uniform “coaches” (regulators at federal and state levels).

Given all these differences between the two agencies and the newness of ARPA-E, it’s no surprise that it isn’t yet a household name, even in the energy industry.

Money and Matchmaking

ARPA-E has invested in more than 285 energy technology projects through its 14 program areas to date. The competition for awards is fierce. On Wednesday, Shane Kosinski, deputy director for operations, explained to a researcher whose project wasn’t chosen in the most recent open funding solicitation that each of the 4,000 applications in that round went through three to five outside reviews as well as at least two internal ARPA-E reviews.

The financial lift provided to nascent research programs is important, but both ARPA-E staff and awardees talk about the invaluable matchmaking the agency provides (though the federal employees call it “strategic partnerships”). As Program Director Dr. Howard Branz observed on Monday, even within the relatively small world of solar technology, the concentrating solar power and photovoltaic communities rarely talk together. Changing that sort of self-imposed isolation is part of the agency’s mission. And, from all accounts, one of the most valuable services ARPA-E has provided is bringing people together who might not have had access to each other or who wouldn’t have thought they could help solve each other’s problems.

Such matchmaking is important not just to solve technical problems but also to help make the transition to a stage where private investors become interested. Most grantees seem to have been partnered with a national lab or two and/or one or more corporate partners. The public/private partnership element is central to the agency’s mission.

Project Areas

Among the spotlighted projects at this year’s summit are these of particular interest to the power industry:

  • Cree: Utility-scale silicon carbide power transistors that are 50% more efficient than traditional transistors ($5,200,003).
  • Alliant Techsystems: A technology for turning CO2 into a condensed solid for collection and capture whose added cost for coal-fired plants would be 50% less than that of current technologies ($2,684,881). (Watch for a future story providing an overview of several diverse approaches to carbon capture and follow-up stages.)
  • Fluidic Energy: A low-cost, high-power zinc-air battery storage system ($2,993,128).
  • Smart Wire Grid: A distributed power flow control solution that clamps onto existing transmission lines to control the flow of power within to better manage unused and overall transmission capacity ($4,400,000).
  • CUNY Energy Institute: A grid-scale flow-assisted rechargeable zinc-manganese dioxide battery ($2,997,133).
  • UCLA/JPL: Cost-effective solar thermal energy storage using new materials and designs ($2,420,802).

Summit Themes

Summit speakers included several current and former U.S. senators and representatives, General James (Jim) Jones, energy summit gadfly T. Boone Pickens, New York’s energy-focused Mayor Michael Bloomberg, Tesla CEO Elon Musk, a wide swath of energy industry players, plus representatives from national labs, tech companies, and the world of finance. All praised the agency. In fact, the bipartisan support that ARPA-E has enjoyed since the bill authorizing it was signed by President George W. Bush has been one of its hallmarks.

As the nation waits to see if a sequester materializes at the end of this week, budget concerns were on the minds of many, though rarely verbalized. Former national security advisor General Jim Jones, however, argued that support for ARPA-E is “among the best investments” the nation can make. Then he shared a Pentagon saying: “A vision without resources is a hallucination.”

Given the growing urgency of the need for investment in multiple levels of the energy system, the Department of Energy’s R&D budget could look paltry, especially when compared with the R&D budgets of other federally funded organizations. (See the “ Trends in Nondefense Research and Development by Function 1953–2013 ” provided in a recent Pew Charitable Trusts report and MIT Technology Review’s infographic “ Where U.S. R&D dollars go.”)

Another theme that kept emerging was the role of shale gas both nationally and globally. Though some attendees might have wished the focus could have been exclusively on renewables, summit planners and agency managers are clearly aware that fossil fuels will have a role to play not just in the U.S. but worldwide for the foreseeable future, so we need technologies to use them in more environmentally friendly ways.

The growing trend toward distributed generation, especially renewables, also got repeated attention. A more distributed network with a higher percentage of variable renewable generation needs everything from better energy storage systems all along the network to better power flow controllers.

Be Patient and Work Like Mad

An unscientific sample of ARPA-E projects suggests that the average one is roughly three to five years from pilot testing stage and five to x years from commercialization.

Though some folks still complain about the failure of Solyndra, even “big failures” shouldn’t make the nation shy away from investing in R&D. On Monday, Elon Musk—after noting that successes should be given at least the same attention as failures—announced that Tesla, his electric vehicle company, would repay its $465 million DOE loan from the Advanced Technology Vehicle Manufacturing Program (authorized by President Bush) in half the time allotted. Tesla, Musk pointed out, has been a success in terms of exporting cars, selling its power train to other automakers, and meeting all of its milestones.

As for the types of projects ARPA-E is funding, some might wonder why the DOE should focus on such early endeavors. One reason is that capital at that stage is extremely difficult to secure. Another reason was pointed to in one of the summit’s final sessions.

Pacific Gas & Electric Co.’s Executive VP of Electric Operations Geisha Williams asked her co-panelist, Cisco’s Connected Energy Chief Architect Jeffrey Taft, what the tipping point was for renewables on the grid—when does the percentage reach the point that the grid as we know it and the larger energy system simply cannot ensure reliable electricity delivery? Taft responded that most indications are that 20% of total capacity is a tipping point. Then they talked about how long it takes to bring new technologies to market to deal with “new” requirements. Answer: roughly five to 10 years. And that is why ARPA-E and other R&D efforts need to start addressing future needs now.

—Gail Reitenbach, PhD, Managing Editor (@GailReit)