The Sustainability Buzz

The Silent Green Revolution at the Department of Energy

Secretary Chu at the ARPA-e Energy Innovation SummitThe world’s most powerful lithium-ion battery that could drop the cost of the Chevy Volt by $5,000.  A new method of making silicon wafers that would reduce the cost of solar panels by a third.  A 260-ton generator positioned in the Pacific Ocean to capture the renewable energy in waves and power 1000 homes.  These all sound like something from Tomorrowland, but in fact they are the results of a “silent green revolution” being funded by the U.S. government.

That assessment comes from Michael Grunwald, author of the new book, The New New Deal.  In it, Mr. Grunwald studies the effects of the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (ARRA), also known as “the Stimulus”.  Of all the positive things that the Stimulus did, one of the most successful has been the funding of clean energy development within the Department of Energy, specifically within ARPA-E, the Advanced Research Projects Agency-Energy.

ARPA-E was established by Congress in 2007 but without any funding.  Its mission was to fund high-risk, high-payoff research projects that advanced the goals of reducing dependence on foreign oil, reducing carbon emissions, dramatically improving energy efficiency, and ensuring the U.S. remains a technological and economic leader in developing and deploying advanced energy technologies.  With the Stimulus in 2009, ARPA-E finally received funding.

Under the direction of Energy Secretary and Nobel Prize winner, Steven Chu, ARPA-E has led the Department of Energy to become the biggest, greenest venture capital firm in the world.  A $90 billion budget line for clean energy development jump-started what had been a badly lagging segment of American research.  While the Department of Energy invests in conventional energy research, ARPA-E focuses on “out-of-the-box”, high-risk experiments with the potential for game-changing discoveries.

ARPA-E projects represent the kind of research that American business is reluctant to undertake because of the uncertainty of financial return.  In that respect, ARPA-E demonstrates the importance of government funding to move the state of knowledge forward.  Of the 180 investments that ARPA-E has made in basic research in renewable energy, it is impossible to tell which ones might be big winners commercially.  But there are some clues already.  Eleven ARPA-E-funded companies have acquired follow-up private-sector venture funding in excess of $200 million.

ARPA-E and stimulus support has already had a significant impact on the wind power industry.  In 2009, when President Obama took office, the U.S. was generating 25 gigawatts of wind power annually, with a targeted forecast of 40 gigawatts by 2030.  This year, we will produce 50 gigawatts of wind power.

In addition to the developments in wind, ARPA-E investments created the advanced battery industry for electric vehicles almost from scratch, an area in which the U.S. had been significantly trailing other developed nations.  And ARPA-E funding has accelerated smart grid development.

What does this mean to you?  Take a look at some of the ARPA-E graduate companies that have received venture capital funding:

  • Phononic Devices is designing devices to capture wasted heat produced by factories, power plants and vehicles, and convert it directly into usable electric power. These “thermoelectric” devices are also being designed to remove heat so they can be used as efficient cooling systems.
  • Transphorm is developing compact and efficient semiconductor devices that can quickly switch electrical currents. The aim is to reduce wasted power from electric motors, thereby reducing energy consumption.
  • Primus Power has developed a battery using high energy fluids that are pumped throughout the battery. This “flow battery” can store renewable energy such as wind and solar power and then release that energy into the grid during peak load times.
  • Scientists at OPX Biotechnologies are developing bacteria to produce a liquid biofuel using electricity and carbon dioxide. This liquid biofuel is being designed to replace petroleum fuel at a competitive cost. The project combines OPX’s technological capabilities with expertise in bacteria from the National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL).

The impact of any one of these companies’ products in the manufacturing arena could reduce costs and improve efficiencies.  Other projects such as better, cheaper batteries, more efficient air conditioners, improved carbon capture and sequestration, alternatives to the use of rare earth materials, cleaner, more efficient vehicles, advanced second generation biofuels and more cost-competitive clean energy will reap untold rewards in the years ahead.

From a citizenship perspective, it’s rewarding to see tax dollars being utilized to support basic research that will eventually create new industries and jobs and keep the U.S. in the forefront of clean energy innovation.  From a sustainability perspective, let’s hope that the “silent green revolution” doesn’t stay silent for long.

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