Commentary: Ending the energy ‘Stone Age,’ and other lessons from ARPA-E

Energy Secretary Steven Chu told this year's ARPA-E conference "The Stone Age didn't end because we ran out of stones - we advanced to better solutions." (Photo via Department of Energy)

Energy Secretary Steven Chu told this year’s ARPA-E conference “The Stone Age didn’t end because we ran out of stones – we advanced to better solutions.” (Photo via Department of Energy)

EDITOR’S NOTE: Last week, Midwest Energy News reporter Dan Ferber spent three days near Washington, D.C., at the annual Energy Innovation Summit of the Advanced Research Projects Agency­—Energy (ARPA-E).

Few vantage points are better for viewing the nation’s evolving energy landscape than the Energy Innovations Summit, ARPA-E’s annual conference, which took place three days last week at a convention center on the Potomac River, a few miles from the White House.

Although the conference sometimes seemed like a giant infomercial for ARPA-E, keynotes by senators, industrialists, mayors and a university president offered valuable insights, highlighting the the dramatic changes going on across the energy landscape, and the excitement over new and potentially game-changing technologies and the hurdles they face before they change the energy landscape.

It fell to the conference’s undisputed rock star, outgoing Secretary of Energy Steven Chu, to cast the energy challenge in the broadest terms. “It’s not a choice between cutting carbon and emission and spending a lot of money or going in the direction we’re going. That’s a false choice. What ARPA-E is all about is what the DOE is all about: a transition to a better choice.”

That better choice requires new energy technologies, which is ARPA-E’s role. But to understand how those technologies fit into the broader energy landscape, the conference offered a variety of opinions from academics, technologists, financiers, and politicians.

People, money, and energy

Hans Rosling, a professor of global health at Sweden’s Karolinska Institute and founder of Gapminder, an NGO promoting sustainable global development, set the stage at the conference with a dynamic talk on the future of global energy demand.

One of the worst misconceptions about global energy demand, he said, is that it will grow in lockstep with the growing population in the developing world. “People get healthy and educated first, then they get rich,” he said.

The bulk of the increased growth in energy demand this century will come not from the developed world, but instead from the middle-income countries—China, India, Brazil, and South Africa— as they grow richer. A diverse mix of energy, including nuclear, will be needed to supply that demand because fossil fuels will become scarcer, he said.

“Population growth is not the issue when it comes to energy. It’s economic growth,” he concluded.

Fracking our way to prosperity?

Fracking is the way to both energy and economic growth, former Indiana Governor and current Purdue University president Mitch Daniels told the ARPA-E crowd. The technologies that enable horizontal fracturing are “the best break in American technology since the silicon chip,”

“The upside is huge. We’re talking cautiously 1-2 percent of the GDP,” he maintained.

The upside comes from a change in the trade balance, as cheap gas fuels resurgence in U.S. manufacturing, and with it jobs and an increase in government revenue. National security will also benefit by bringing energy production stateside, Daniels said.

“The problems, where they exist at all, are mitigatable,” Daniels maintained. Creating public policies that maximize natural gas extraction “should be the easiest call since, oh, the Keystone Pipeline,” Daniels needled. ”This is a great course for the country, “ he said.

‘We’ve got to do something now’

Natural gas is part of the solution, but far from all of it, said Mayor Michael Bloomberg of New York City. Policies promoting renewable energy and energy efficiency are critical, and New York City had adopted a number of them, but natural gas is needed, too, he said.

That’s true, at least, until energy can be scored at the huge scale needed to power society fully with renewable energy.

“Until you discover the energy holy grail of being able to store electricity, you will always need backup.” But natural gas needs to be extracted responsibly, with the industry accepting “sensible environmental safeguards,” Bloomberg said.

Bloomberg also talked about coal’s decline, and touted the Sierra Club’s activist campaign Beyond Coal, which he helped fund, for its advocacy for shutting down coal-fired power plants.

“It used to be said that coal is king, and it’s regrettable that coal is king in India and China, but here in the United States, the king is dead,” he said. “Coal is a dead man walking.”

Solutions today require new energy technology, which is poised to take off, Bloomberg said. Bloomberg was a technology entrepreneur in the early 1980s, when he founded a company, known today as Bloomberg LP, to supply Wall Street analysts with up-to-the-minute business and financial information on their computer terminals.

“I think clean energy technology today is at the same stage that information technology was then,” Bloomberg said.

But the biggest need of all, Bloomberg told the policymakers, business people and technologists, was leadership in dealing with the dual challenges of climate change and energy.

“If we want to have a better world for our children and ourselves, we’ve got to do something now,” he said.

Shared risks, shared rewards

One thing we should do now is develop new paths to clean energy, Ellen Kullman, the chief executive officer of DuPont, the Wilmington, Delaware-based chemical-industry giant, told conference attendees.

“No modern habit is in greater need of innovation than energy use,” she said.

Since the 1990s, DuPont has invested heavily in areas such as materials science, and Kullman said that DuPont-made materials are making solar PV panels longer-lasting and able to harvest more of the sun’s energy. Nevertheless, some solar panel makers use lower cost, lower grade materials, which lead to inferior panels that end up harvesting less energy.

“Materials matter, and the solar market needs to embrace this,” Kullman said.

Biofuels matter, too, she added. DuPont has operated a demonstration-scale biorefinery in Vonore, Tennessee, since 2008, and plans to build the nation’s first commercial cellulosic biofuel plant in Iowa, Kullman said. This plant would take biomass from switchgrass or other crops and produce ethanol for transportation fuel. DuPont has teamed up with farmers, national labs, universities and start-up companies for this effort.

“We’ve all shared in the risks and we’ll all share the benefits,” Kullman said.

Moving energy technology to market

Dealing with growth in energy demand, and the challenges of climate change, will require many such innovations, said Cheryl Martin, ARPA-E’s deputy director. But rather than sitting back and waiting for discoveries to magically reach the market, ARPA-E helps its grantees take an active role.

Martin describes ARPA-E’s technology-development grants as “small and catalytic,” and the agency expects its grantee to have a “specified path to market.”

Sometimes grantees team up with a government agency, as when Kennewick, Washington, based Infinia Corporation, teamed up with the U.S. Navy, which is interested in cooling remote troop outposts with the company’s solar-powered air conditioner. Sometimes a large, established company might invest in an ARPA-E-funded startup.

Or, a university-based inventor or engineer might spin off a company, with ARPA-E’s help, and try to lure private investors. Seventeen companies have attracted more than $450 million in private funding to develop technologies that ARPA-E funded in the early stages, Martin said.

Because of the risky nature of the work, many of the projects ARPA-E funds will fail, Martin said. But with the right investment and the right attitude, some will succeed.

“The greatest discoveries take time, money and patience,” she said. “After all, it took Christopher Columbus three funded trips to discover the New World.”

What are we thinking?

Such discoveries could move us out of an energy Stone Age and create “better, cheaper solutions to meet our energy needs, Chu told attendees in his keynote lecture.

“The Stone Age didn’t end because we ran out of stones,” Chu said. “We advanced to better solutions.”

It will take a great deal of funding to discover the path forward on energy, but with climate change intensifying, we have a moral responsibility to address it, Chu said. He showed on the hall’s giant screen the famous photo taken by the crew of Apollo 8 of the distant earth, with a bleak lunar landscape in the foreground and a gulf of blackness in between.

“We don’t want our children asking, What were our parents thinking? Didn’t they care about us?”

One thought on “Commentary: Ending the energy ‘Stone Age,’ and other lessons from ARPA-E

  1. I saw not one word in new creative suggestions for energy sustainability. Gas fracking is not an answer, it is merely an extension of CO2 increases at best. Not one word embracing SREC potentials based on CO2 costing by Utes and petro companies. Making solar water heating and PV installs profitable for the energy it produces would open massive markets to new resources that would regulate and police themselves, simply because no one would want a solar production system that did not produce. Do away with product incentives and installer rebates which increase consumer costs. Pay the worthy amount for non-poluting energy and the problem would solve itself! AND if that approach seems wrong, no one has a bad wrap or blame game going on. It spreads the wealth over greater populations instead of enabling oil companies and Ute’s to get bigger and out of control. One honest look at wall street banksters will show how that works out.