ARPA-E and Government Investment

By Eric Parker

This year Congress has sought to slash the budget of the Advanced Research Projects Agency, with the House of Representatives proposing cuts of over 80% to its budget. ARPA-E, created by the America COMPETES Act in 2007, has embarked on several rounds of successful funding for breakthrough clean energy technologies, helping companies bridge market barriers. Without the agency’s support for applied research and development, clean energy companies will fall into a technological Valley of Death, preventing commercialization and ultimately American energy independence.          

ARPA-E was never meant to be America’s energy panacea - the organization’s mandate, crystallized by Deputy Director for Commercialization Cheryl Martin, is “funding things that other people won’t fund.” In 2013, private equity maintains a strong foothold in mainstream, commercialized technologies like solar and wind, which are receiving both utility and consumer buy-in.  However, there is no “silver-bullet” approach to the American clean energy economy.  Energy independence will require rather “silver-buckshot,” a multitude of deployable and financeable energy technologies.

The problem here is that the venture capitalists of Silicon Valley and investment bankers of Wall Street have historically funded safe bets, or proven technologies with guaranteed return. This creates the “Valley of Death,” or the gap in private funding available to new technologies because of market barriers and uncertainty.  This is where an organization like ARPA-E has a chance to shine, awarding a series of grants for prototyping and scaling of “disruptive” energy technologies that wouldn’t otherwise receive financial support during these critical phases of development.

ARPA-E operates by granting several rounds of funding to qualifying projects, ranging from $400,000 to upwards of $10 million over the course of a few years. Seed projects are evaluated year to year and awarded increased funds based on merit. This allows projects that were born out of our country’s university labs to develop proof-of-concept and working prototypes, ready for commercialization. The fact of the matter is, there is no private institution providing this function for transformational energy technologies.  However, with public support and funding guarantees from ARPA-E, the private sector is much more like to view investments in the technology as a sure bet, opening the doors to further equity.  

Take for example Phononic Devices - a company that uses solid state heat pumps to capture low-grade waste heat from industrial process for energy production.  This process represents an enormous opportunity in energy efficiency, as up to 61% of energy generated in the United States is wasted or lost.  ARPA-E recognized the technology’s potential, and awarded $3 million in funding in 2011.  At the time of funding, Phononics was still a young, unproven company with a risky and unconventional technology.  However since ARPA-E’s initial investment, Phononics has received an additional $11 million in private sector funding, which is being used to accelerate large-scale commercialization.  This is just one of the success stories that came out of ARPA-E’s initial award-winners. 

This is the niche ARPA-E must continue to fill, moving investment away from a “boom and bust” cycle dependent on expiring subsidies and tax credits and towards a diverse portfolio of technology.  As Congress continues to struggle over comprehensive federal energy policy, ARPA-E’s consortium of industry expertise and PhD talent allows the organization to support truly transformational energy technologies. 

The oft-cited Solyndra case of “choosing winners,” the main argument against the funding of ARPA-E, is flawed as well.  ARPA-E exists within the free-market system, working to bridge critical gaps in funding and support.  In a capitalist economy, there are winners and losers, simply put. The Department of Energy’s funding of Solyndra accounted for just 1.3% of loans that they have awarded to clean energy projects, and is the only significant failure.  ARPA-E awards dozens of loans in each round of funding, and represents the best use of the limited resources available in today’s budget-constrained environment. As of 2013, 17 projects have been awarded a collective $70 million, and have attracted $450 million in additional private sector backing. The government is not picking winners, it is simply giving potentially game-changing technology a fighting chance in a heavy established market. 

In the face of budget uncertainty and rough political waters, ARPA-E continues to support the leading-edge in American energy innovation.  As countries like Germany and China surge ahead in renewable energy production, programs like ARPA-E must continue to provide stability to an emerging and diversifying market.  If we as a nation want to compete on the international level, it’s up to Congress and the American people to see the real-world benefit the agency provides, and its crucial role in the 21st Century energy economy.