For years, various organizations have pushed for a new federal agency focused on quickly developing new technology for solving our energy woes. Last week, President Bush signed into law a bill that provides for just such an agency, although it has yet to receive any funding.
The new agency, called the Advanced Research Projects Agency for Energy (ARPA-E), is modeled on the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA), which funds high-risk (read: unlikely to pay off), cutting edge, and sometimes harebrained research related to defense. DARPA has had some success. It grew out of an agency that launched the Internet, and it has sponsored a “grand challenge” program that led to a robotic SUV that can navigate new terrain on its own. Some of its ideas have been, well, less than inspired.
Will it work for energy? There are certainly areas that need out-of-the-box thinking, such as ways to break theoretical limits for solar cells or ways to convert carbon-dioxide emissions into fuels. Maybe the agency can find good ideas that are now slipping through the cracks.
But what is desperately needed is a coherent policy that will push industry and government to implement the technologies available now that can make a difference, such as variable valve timing on gasoline engines, clean diesel, and advanced hybrid and plug-in hybrid technology. The president has threatened to veto an energy bill now before Congress that would take steps to doing just that.