June 13, 2017 at 11:00 AM
A congressionally mandated study has found that a key federal energy research program, which the Trump administration is seeking to defund almost entirely, is "not failing and is not in need of reform."
The Advanced Research Projects Agency-Energy, or ARPA-E, is a freestanding office designed to operate nimbly and without bureaucracy as it funds breakthrough energy innovations that increase U.S. security and fight climate change.
It was created under a law signed by President George W. Bush and granted its first major funding under President Barack Obama's 2009 stimulus legislation — but the Trump administration would like to slash its funding from $ 290 million in 2017 to just $ 20 million in 2018, a 93 percent decrease.
A new study by the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine (NAS) certainly won't help that quest. The study, mandated by the law that created ARPA-E itself, finds that the agency, while still quite young, has had many successes — although it has done a poor job of singing its own praises.
"I think this report looked at a lot of documentation, collected a lot of evidence, and found that ARPA-E is indeed making progress towards its stated goals and its mission," said Pradeep Khosla, the chancellor of the University of California-San Diego and chair of the committee.
ARPA-E is a perfect instance of a scientific and industrial mindset that, while previously a matter of bipartisan consensus, has recently become imperiled — the idea that government dollars should fund innovation and help create new industries and initiatives.
The agency was created in 2007 by the America COMPETES Act, which was designed to stoke U.S. innovation and was signed into law by President Bush. By late last year, ARPA-E had spent more than $ 1 billion on more than 500 individual projects, ranging from better batteries for electric cars, to technologies to capture carbon, to "plants engineered to replace oil."
Among its biggest investments so far is energy storage, especially in advanced battery technologies for cars and the electric grid.
ARPA-E was deliberately designed to circumvent civil service laws in hiring — employees typically only stay on board for 3 years. This was to help the agency "overcome the long-term and high-risk technology barriers in the development of energy technologies," in the words of Congress.
The agency was intended as a different sort of beast in the Energy Department, separate and apart, more corporate in its hiring, hopefully more creative and more willing to take risks.
The agency describes what it does as the hunt for "white space": areas in energy technology research that neither federal programs, nor industrial investments, are addressing.
The program had only been in full operation for six years at the time of the study. That's not nearly long enough, the committee finds, for it to have completed all of its objectives.
But the program still produced concrete results: 581 scientific journal studies based on ARPA-E funded research, 74 patents, 45 projects that had gone on to receive $1.25 billion in additional funding, and perhaps most notably, 36 new companies based on ARPA-E funded projects.
Additional research has shown meanwhile that "ARPA-E projects were more likely to publish and to do so with high frequency relative to other [Energy Department] offices," and in more influential journals, the NAS notes. The same was true for the production of patents.
The report singles out several particular successful technologies supported by ARPA-E. One prime example were devices, made by Smart Wires, that help manage the flow of electricity across the grid by clamping on to individual power lines and modulating the flow of power, helping grid operators to shunt electrons to where they're needed and away from where they aren't.
That makes it possible to use the aging infrastructure of the grid to make it smarter and more responsive to demand on hot days or other moments of high use, explained Louis Schick, the chief technology officer of NewWorld Capital Group and another of the report's authors.
"If you can actively redirect how the power flows through the system, you can get more capacity out of it," said Schick. "Everybody knows this. The idea that you could actively control that on the existing, often derided, ancient grid technology was considered difficult, impossible, not practical."
But after receiving close to $ 4 million in ARPA-E funding in 2011, Smart Wires has taken off, and received over $ 50 million in additional funding.
ARPA-E's SWITCHES program — for "Strategies for Wide-Bandgap, Inexpensive Transistors for Controlling High-Efficiency Systems" — has also carved out a new sphere of energy innovation, says Schick. Here, the research is peering into the possibility of replacing the silicon-based semiconductors that power electronic devices like laptops, with switches made of gallium nitride.
"If I could make gallium nitride work, I could make power electronics an order of magnitude smaller, significantly more efficient," said Schick. The full transformation hasn't happened yet, but he said the results "really have changed people's understanding of the possible."
One of the biggest problems, though — and this may partly help explain ARPA-E's current political vulnerability — is that the program has often done a poor job of explaining the value and successes of what are often quite complex technologies.
"The committee is concerned that the inability to deliver compelling messaging consistently in the language of the general public limits ARPA-E's ability to describe its programs and projects to the broader set of policy makers and the public at a time when energy issues often are at the forefront of public debates," notes the NAS.
Still, the basic assessment is that, beyond that minor matter of selling itself to the public, the agency is on the right track.
As for whether that means it would be a good idea to slash its funding after such a short period of time, Khosla said, "that decision has to be made by the policymakers. We feel very comfortable in saying that it is on its way to achieving its goals."