Breakthrough Energy Research Funded by ARPA-E

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A presentation last night in the Silicon Valley, by Mark Hartney, program director at ARPA-E, the Stimulus-funded offshoot of the Department of Energy, explained how the new agency is  trying to leapfrog existing energy technologies with wild ideas hatched in the nation’s public and private labs, maybe even a garage or two.

Creating fuel to run cars by combining CO2, water and sunlight with bacteria? ARPA-E just funded it for $2.2 million. Such “out there” innovation might be the secret recipe needed to get the nation back into the game of energy-related economic innovation that is now being played largely outside US borders. 

“We are not really keeping up with the world,” said Hartney, who pointed out that the US share of the global PV solar market alone went from 30 to 50 percent in the 1990s down to 7 percent this year. “It’s similar in fuel efficiencies and the situation in batteries is much the same.”

ARPA-E’s mandate is to reduce greenhouse gases, reduce dependance on foreign oil and increase economic and energy security. It is based on the Department of Defense’s DARPA program, started in 1958 in response to the Soviet launch of the Sputnik satellite. DARPA funding resulted in the Stealth fighter, the M16 assuault rifle and the backbone of the Internet (or ARPANET, as it was known in the day), among other innovations.

ARPA-E was first authorized in 2007-2008 and was sprung from theory earlier this year with funding from the The American Resource and Recovery Act of 2009. ARPA-E has $400 million to distribute for “breaking the barrier–supporting high risk, high-pontential programs,” Hartney said. 

So far, as of October, a total of 37 projects were funded for a total of $151 million. ARPA characterizes the main areas funded as:

  • petroleum-free vehicles
  • low-carbon transport fuels
  • industrial energy efficiency
  • building energy efficiency
  • low-carbon power (which includes carbon capture)

ARPA-E-grants-chart.pngThe breakdown of who got funded so far: 45% for small businesses, 35% universities and 20% large companies, Hartney told the audience, which was invited by CALCEF, a clean-tech fund initiated through a legal settlement with a California public utility.

ARPA-E is putting out additional requests later this year and early next year for the remaining $249 million. The money has to be out the door by September 2010. In this year’s earlier funding round, the agency received 6,000 proposals that it whittled down to the 37 awards.

“We have strong support from the Secretary (of Energy), The President and Congress,” Hartney said. “Even so, we couldn’t handle any more funding than we have.” 

The CALCEF presentation also featured an update on California’s new 33% renewable energy portfolio standard, which Governor Schwarzenegger signed as an executive order in September. The 33% renewable rate for the state’s power supply needs to be hit by 2020. The previous renewable portfolio standard, explained the California Public Utility Commission’s Jaclyn Marks, was 20% by 2010, a level that the state is significantly short of at this point.

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