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Buoyed by optimism …

February 28th, 2011 · No Comments

Amid Peak Oil concerns (and spiking oil prices), ever-worsening news about our collective headlong rush toward catastrophic climate chaos, economic challenges, and … sometimes it can be hard to have optimism about America’s future (and, well, humanity’s …).  Despair, to the point of looking toward bunkers, is not an uncommon feeling for those most knowledgeable about humanity’s energy practices and/or climate change science. Sometimes, however, opportunities exist to immerse oneself in reasons — substantive and meaningful — reasons for optimism

Today was the first day of the (second) annual Advanced Research Projects Agency — Energy (ARPA-E) Innovation Summit.  And, spending a day with the 1000+ attendees provides reasons for feeling optimism.

  • ARPA-E staff: Without exception, every person associated with ARPA-E has impressed me.  These are highly (extremely) competent and qualified people who, to a great extent, have given up more lucrative positions to give time in public service. These are very top-notch people who are serving a mission that they believe in.
  • The attendees are ‘problem solvers’, technological and otherwise. And, the room was filled with impassioned people seeking to engage with others to figure out how to foster movement forward in clean energy, energy efficiency, water desalination, etc …
  • This is a space of private-public, government-academia-industry cooperation and mutual respect that provides a window on (even though nothing is perfect) how well things can work.
  • ARPA-E is focused on fostering revolutionary change in key technology arenas that will enable leap forwards. These extremely competent people are targeting arenas where they see the possibility for real change.

ARPA-E has seen some 7000 applications from some of America’s best and brightest scientists and engineers.  This provides ARPA-E a unique window on the state of energy technology development in the United States and the possible developments in the coming years.  In response to a question, Dr. Arun Majumdar, Director ARPA-E, commented

We get a bird’s eye view of what is out there.

It is absolutely amazing how much innovation is out there.

This gives me great confidence about America’s future.

ARPA-E has programs underway to greatly improve building energy efficiency (such as targeting a halving of air conditioning power demands through developing new technologies), to develop cost-effective grid electricity storage, etc …

What Secretary of Energy called the ‘sunshot’ to react to the 21st Century Sputnik moment is ARPA-Es integrated effort to slash the cost of installing solar power.  Solar costs are falling, fast, right now with costs about $3.40 per watt right now split between three areas: the photovoltaiic (PV) modules (about 50%); balance-of-systems (BOS — think permitting, inspections, installation, sales, etc) (about 40%); and power electronics (about 10% of costs).   The just-formed (January 2011) team is laying out a path to cut solar photovoltaiic (pv) costs — installed — to less than $1 per watt leading to levelized-cost of electricity (LCOE) of 5-6 cents per kilowatt hour (kWh) for industrial installations by 2020.  Achieving this would boost, by 2040, solar PV electricity to over 15 percent of US electricity supply rather than the roughly 2 percent that is likely under ‘business as usual’ (BAU) scenarios.

ARPA-E received $400 million in the stimulus package — honestly, about a tenth of the amount that this author saw as merited. Let’s take this figure … what if ARPA-E received $400 million  per year for the decade or $4 billion. What if every program failed (and there are many others with serious value that ARPA-E is funding and pursuing that will have successes) except the Sun Shot?  $4 billion to lay the groundwork for American-made clean energy projects that can outcompete dirty energy systems even without accounting for external costs.  That would be 4 billion extremely well spent dollars.

Some items on the web:

Some ‘notes’ …

  1. Let’s be frank. ARPA-E is in the cross hairs of Republican budget busters, seemingly unconcerned about tomorrow’s implications of their budget butchering actions today.  ARPA-E was funded out of the stimulus package (ARRA) and not the regular budget. If lightning struck and there were a sudden agreement to fund the Federal government at 2010 levels, ARPA-E would be left in the dirt of celebration as it wasn’t in that budget. ARPA-E has ‘bipartisan’ support but that ‘bipartisanship’ doesn’t include the Tea Party-ites dominating the House Republican Majority.  There are those fighting to get ARPA-E money but … The speakers (in the sessions that I was in) spoke of their plans for the coming years without hinting toward the serious question as to whether ARPA-E will be short-lived.  Not certain that they had other options, but honest and open discussion of this challenge wasn’t core to the Innovation Summit’s presentations.
  2. ARPA-E has been inundated with applications and has (as discussed above) a unique window on innovative energy technology development in the United States. ARPA-E has had some 7000 applications and made 120 awards. How many of those 6880 applicants who didn’t receive awards represent technological opportunities which, with even just a little funding (or other) assistance, could make a difference in helping solve America’s energy, climate, and economic challenges?  (In conversations with those involved in evaluating the first 3700 (which resulted in 37 awards), they saw anywhere between 25-50% as worthwhile proposals potentially meriting support.)  While ARPA-E has a particular mission — with a focus on breakthrough technologies that will payoff 3+ years from now (bridging basic science and industry) — that could justify only funding such a small share of programs, a question to ask: how to leverage ARPA-Es unique window on technology developments and vibrant application process to enable movign forward the 1000s of other viable and valuable opportunities?
  3. The 1000 or so at the ARPA-E Innovation Summit are scientists, engineers, technologists, and others working toward solutions. They (many? most of them?) have a core belief in technology and the ability for technology to solve problems.  Technology — even a systems-of-systems of technologies — is unlikely to be ‘the silver bullet’ to solve humanity’s resource challenges (such as peak oil and global warming). At least some at the Innovation Summit seem to have a hard time seeing this.
  4. Finally, as a minor issue in program management: the technology showcase is only open limited hours as, evidently, ARPA-E wanted to keep people in sessions rather than walking the booths.  Having attended many (MANY) conferences, a simple reality: the greatest value is often found in conversations amid the booths and the contacts made in exhibition areas (often with other attendees rather than the booth ‘babes’).   And, the reality of a conference in the DC area: many of the attendees will be unable to be there in the evening which is the majority of the Technology Showcase open hours.  Lesson for future: more showcase time throughout the summit … please.
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Tags: Energy