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ARPA-E Summit Reveals U.S. Energy Future

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Bill Gates and Steven Chu have a "fireside" chat at the 2012 ARPA-e summit. Courtesy of Department of Energy.

The future of energy will be on display at the fourth annual summit of the Advanced Research Projects Agency for Energy, or ARPA–e. But which future?

Energy innovators from start-ups, the national laboratories, universities and even oil companies will gather for three days to hear from the nation's best about the future of energy. The confab this year will feature talks from the likes of natural gas pusher T. Boone Pickens and climate savvy mayor Michael Bloomberg as well as panel sessions on everything from how to build a business to a panel on the energy-water nexus (I'll be moderating that one).

This will be a year of big changes. Founding director Arun Majumdar has moved on to Google.org. Guiding light Secretary of Energy Steven Chu will soon step down. There have been a host of changes in program directors and programs as the outfit's first three-year research and testing cycle draws to a close.

The summit last year showcased the programs successes—a new battery technology that might finally make long-range electric cars affordable—but also the juvenile agency's susceptibility to political winds—a new program to help take advantage of newly abundant supplies of natural gas. Even four years in, it still remains very much to be seen whether ARPA–e will be enough to keep the U.S. at the forefront of global innovation in energy technology, or whether a fresh influx of domestically produced fossil fuels will again displace alternative energy as happened in the past.

I'll be attending the summit to see how ARPA–e might change during the second Obama administration. To figure that out, I'll be attending sessions like "Are There Military Applications in Your Future?" to determine who, if anyone, will benefit from ARPA–e successes as well as listening to a "fireside chat" between Chu and electric car visionary Elon Musk to see how that government-backed effort may fare in future.

One thing that remains the same is that energy research remains a focus for the Obama administration. President Obama has called for the federal government to invest far more money in science than it is today—an amount equivalent to the billions of dollars spent on the space program in the 1960s. That may or may not happen but the money already invested in ARPA–e could pay off big with something as world-changing as what its much older sibling—the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, or DARPA—has yielded. DARPA, after all, gave us the Internet, originally known as ARPA-net, among other things.

Is ARPA–e on track to deliver a similar breakthrough? Chu seems to think so. Here's how he put it in his farewell letter to Department of Energy employees: "In the first few years, 11 of the companies funded with $40 million have attracted more than $200 million in combined private investment. While it is too early to tell if we have home runs like ARPA-net, there are a number of investments that have certainly rounded second base."

 

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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