Congress Backs Energy Agency

ARPA-E will likely get a funding increase at a time when many programs face cuts.

Two years after it was created the Advanced Research Projects Agency for Energy (ARPA-E) is receiving support within Congress as a way to address concerns about energy security, the economy, and national security. While Congress contemplates major cuts in many programs, Republicans and Democrats in the House have voted to increase funding for the agency above current levels. The increase is only a 10th of what President Obama asked for in his 2012 budget for ARPA-E, but it is a marked exception to the spending reductions in the rest of the bill.

ARPA-E is meant to fund risky energy-research projects—ones that are unlikely to get initial funding any other way but have the potential to have a big impact. For example, they might seek to make solar power as cheap as fossil-fuel-based power or to give electric vehicles a range and a cost comparable to those of gasoline-powered cars.

Despite substantial bipartisan support for the agency when it was created, ARPA-E received no funding until April 2009, when it was awarded $400 million as part of the Recovery Act. It has yet to receive any substantial funding under the regular budget. But now a House continuing resolution bill for keeping the government running this year, which features large cuts in discretionary spending, includes $50 million for the agency.

ARPA-E has moved quickly over the last two years, funding 121 projects, many in response to workshops with experts aimed at identifying critical areas of research. The agency’s choices have met with mixed reviews. A group of “electrofuels” projects is investigating more efficient ways to make renewable liquid fuels. But some critics have noted that these approaches won’t work unless there are first big advances in other areas, such as solar power and hydrogen production from renewable sources. Arun Majumdar, head of ARPA-E, acknowledges that the electrofuels projects are still “early-stage.”

ARPA-E has also funded research into batteries that use lithium metal, a material that can store almost as much energy as gasoline but has proved finicky in rechargeable batteries—so much so that some battery experts predict that it will never be practical to use.

The agency has widespread support in Congress—although not necessarily to fund the agency at the levels Obama wants, according to Senator Lisa Murkowski (R- Alaska), who spoke at an ARPA-E conference this week. She noted that an amendment that would have eliminated the $50 million increase in ARPA-E funding in the House bill was voted down by a substantial margin. She also said it’s “widely acknowledged that we’re going to need some genuine breakthroughs [in energy], where that kind of breakthrough is exceedingly difficult.” She added, “There’s a general willingness in Congress to give this effort a true go, and this is at a time when much of our focus in Congress is on finding ways to reduce funding.”

Murkowski also noted that private investment in several ARPA-E projects “helps greatly” in maintaining that support. According to the agency, six of its projects have together pulled in over $100 million in private investment since they received initial funding from the agency.

Support for ARPA-E also stems from a bipartisan belief that investments in energy research are good for the economy, particularly in the longer term. “We have to cut back somewhere,” said Senator Lamar Alexander (R-Tennessee) at the ARPA-E conference. “But we want to cut fat, not muscle and bone. Research and innovation are the muscle power that grows our economies. We need to set priorities so that we don’t do damage to the economy.”

The agency is also viewed as essential to national security, according to Representative Steve Israel (D-New York), speaking at the conference. “Here’s our defense paradigm: we are borrowing energy from China to fund defense budgets, to buy oil from the Persian Gulf, to fuel our weapons systems, to protect us from China and the Persian Gulf,” Israel said. “We are reliant on our adversaries for our national security,” and investment in new energy technologies is crucial to changing this, he said.

Secretary of the Navy Raymond Mabus said at the same conference that dependence on oil makes the military “too susceptible to supply and price shocks,” and that the need to protect supply lines for transporting fuel results in large numbers of casualties. Mabus has set a goal for the Navy and the Marines to meet half their energy requirements with nonfossil fuels by 2020. At the conference, he announced a partnership between the Department of Defense and ARPA-E on two projects. One seeks to improve energy storage systems for soldiers in the field and for electrical systems on ships; DOD and ARPA-E have each requested $25 million for 2012 for this project. The military will also work with an existing grid storage program at ARPA-E to increase the supply of electricity at military bases.

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