Now Is Not The Time To Gut Funding For Innovative Energy Research

This commentary, authored by Robert Fares, originally appeared on Scientific American’s “Plugged In” blog.

Modeled after the successful Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA), the Advanced Research Projects Agency – Energy (ARPA-E) uses small grants to bring transformative energy technologies to commercialization. (Source: ARPA-E)

Last month, a subcommittee of the U.S. House of Representatives quietly voted to gut funding for the U.S. Department of Energy’s (DOE’s) efforts to promote innovative energy research. The DOE’s Advanced Research Projects Agency – Energy (ARPA-E) was first on the chopping block. The subcommittee voted to slash its funding from the current level of $252 million to just $50 million—an 80% cut. On top of that, the subcommittee cut funding for the DOE’s work on renewable energy in half.

ARPA-E was created by the 2007 America COMPETES Act, signed into law by then President George W. Bush. The agency is modeled after the successful Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA)—credited for transformative innovations like GPS and computer networking. ARPA-E is intended to facilitate small government grants for basic research into transformative energy technologies that are too risky for the private sector. Since its first funding allocation from the Obama administration in 2009, ARPA-E awardees have already doubled the world-record energy density for a rechargeable lithium-ion battery and pioneered a near-isothermal compressed air energy storage system.

With help from a $4 million ARPA-E grant, Envia Systems doubled the world-record energy density for a rechargeable lithium-ion battery. (Source: Envia Systems)

ARPA-E’s numerous success stories and proven funding model have given it a measure of bipartisan support. ARPA-E is a major component of the Obama administration’s push for clean energy jobs, drawing high praise from Vice President Biden. Notably, Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney agrees with the administration on this point: “Government has a role to play in innovation in the energy industry. History shows that the United States has moved forward in astonishing ways thanks to national investment in basic research and advanced technology.” In addition to Romney, other key Republican lawmakers have voiced support for ARPA-E: Senator Lisa Murkowski of Alaska and Senator Lamar Alexander of Tennessee both spoke at ARPA-E’s annual summit in February. Considering the fact that ARPA-E has already attracted over $450 million in private sector funding, its bipartisan support should come as no surprise.

This recent move to axe clean energy funding does nothing to truly address our budget woes and hurts our footing in the international race towards a clean energy future. As President Obama laid out in his landmark speech on climate change, it is time for Americans to come together and create a smart, clean, low-carbon economy that protects future generations from the threat of climate change. Programs like ARPA-E provide the vital funding needed to see innovative energy technologies through to commercialization.Now is not the time to cut these vital programs. We must continue supporting clean energy research and inspiring the next great generation of scientists and engineers.

Robert Fares is a Communications Intern at Environmental Defense Fund and a Ph.D. student in the Department of Mechanical Engineering at The University of Texas at Austin. Robert’s research at The University of Texas looks at how energy storage models can be used with large-scale data and optimization for economic operational management of battery energy storage. Through his research, Robert hopes to demonstrate the marketability and technical compatibility of emerging storage technologies.

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