ARPA-E Survives Brush With Trump Administration Axe

The incubator agency’s 2017 budget victory last week still says little about its fate in 2018
Photo: iStockphoto

When President Trump signed the continuing resolution on the 2017 U.S. Federal budget last week, the country’s energy policy—and the fate of the government’s most innovative program pushing the forefront of energy—was kicked down the road till 30 September, when the 2017 budget runs out. So, an outright victory for energy research it was not, although clearly it represented the staving off of any kind of crisis moment.

September is now the new showdown date for the future of federally-funded breakthrough energy research in the United States. And if Trump has his say, the September fight could be waged in a higher-stakes, post-filibuster, 51-votes-to-pass-a-bill Senate. (Regardless, apparently, of any consequences for Republicans when Democrats next control the White House and/or Congress.)

The U.S. Advanced Research Projects Agency-Energy (ARPA-E) is a research incubator Department of Energy office (modeled after Internet grandpère DARPA) that Trump’s budget blueprint for 2018 zeroes out. And while the fate of ARPA-E in last week’s 2017 budget squabbles (administration zeroing out of ARPA-E, followed by Congress overriding the president and instead passing a $15 million increase for the agency) might suggest Congressionally-sanctioned prosperous times ahead, it’s not just fatalism to imagine possible disaster for ARPA-E looming in the fall.

Says William Bonvillian, historian of ARPA-E and lecturer at MIT, last week was last week. And September will be September, an entirely different kind of fight for the future of the imperiled agency.

“This is one painful, complicated battle coming up here,” he says about the looming 2018 budget negotiations, which will include the question of ARPA-E's continued funding. “It’s pretty unpredictable how it’s going to go. Does the administration want to leave a very conservative stamp, cutting the federal budget and insisting on its priorities? And because it may not have Congressional support for this, will it risk a shutdown?”

It’s a mug’s game to make any definitive predictions at this point about the outcome of the 2018 budget fight. Many uncertainties still remain to be clarified about an unpredictable Republican president and his uneasy relationship with a Freedom Caucus-swayed Republican Congress, staring down possibly treacherous re-election fights in 2018.

On 3 May, a coalition of over 100 companies, research institutions, and universities circulated a letter that at least foreshadows the kind of firepower ARPA-E’s backers will be bringing to the 2018 budget fight. “ARPA-E supports ‘high-risk, high-reward’ research which has the potential to drastically alter how we make and use energy in the future,” says the letter. Its signatories include luminaries from Harvard, Duke, GeorgiaTech, the National Venture Capital Association, the Southwest Research Institute, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, the American Association for the Advancement of Science, the American Geophysical Union, and IEEE. “ARPA-E finds innovative technologies and gives them the critical push to get to the point where industry can take over investment. ARPA-E is helping to foster groundbreaking technological innovations, including energy storage, advanced nuclear, and carbon capture and sequestration.”

Bonvillian says that the United States has, to its misfortune, already lost much of any early lead it may have enjoyed in developing the next generation of wind turbines and solar panels. As the world builds out its solar and wind farms, low priced Chinese technology is becoming entrenched in its position as the incumbent player.

However, even if China wins the race to build renewable energy generation, the next big question is who will sell the grid-scale storage to pair with the solar and wind generation capacity? The answer is still anyone’s guess.

“With this administration, you’re not going to win the argument that ARPA-E is critical on climate, but I think there is a winning argument that it’s critical on all kinds of energy technologies that the country cares about,” Bonvillian says. He adds:

And batteries are a good example—a really crucial, competitive, international battleground. There’s storage at the utility level, and also for electric and hybrid vehicles. That’s a gigantic market. Some 10 states are already starting to move on storage requirements for their utilities. If you have even a 10 percent storage capacity, you don’t have to build out to peak load. In other words, storage helps you level the loads. We’re getting technologies now for that. We’ve not had that in energy before.

So the race to determine storage for the grid of the future is on. According to Bonvillian, no other federal agency comes close to ARPA-E in supporting high-risk, breakthrough energy research that enables U.S. companies to compete with the best storage technologies from China, Germany, Korea, Brazil, and other nations.

Then, in parallel, is the question of next-generation storage for electric cars.

“We have lithium-ion batteries that aren’t good enough yet,” Bonvillian says. “We’ve got to have considerably more efficient and cheaper batteries for cars, and the range isn’t far enough. The price is too high, and no other country cares about range like we do. That’s going to be critical to the electric car story.”

Bonvillian says ARPA-E happens to sit on a breakthrough R&D niche that may affect whether or not those American batteries will be commercialized. China’s got 10 electric car companies. That’s where it’s going. And now the German companies are on this. So, the fact that chemical storage is going to be the fuel tank of the car of the future is the core of the argument to be made for ARPA-E. Says Bonvillian, “You can’t write off advances in the energy sector. They’re economically too important to the country. And if you can’t write those off, somebody better get on having a strong ARPA-E. Because you don’t have a substitute entity that does what it does.”

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