ARPA-E Energy Innovation Summit 2010

Summit Offers New Details on $400 Million "High-Risk" Energy Research Shop

By Eli Kintisch, March 2, 2010 04:48 PM US Eastern Timezone

In a year ARPA-E, the newest part of the Department of Energy, has gone from barely having an office at DOE to hosting a glitzy and impressive summit this week: star speakers (The New York Times columnist Tom Friedman, GE's Jeffrey Immelt, and DOE Secretary Steven Chu), stimulating panels of experts, and huge catered lunches at a new Washington, D.C.-area convention center. On paper the 3-day meeting is aimed at bringing together scientists with the funding community to catalyze new efforts in energy research and development. These two groups include, primarily, the 37 winners of ARPA-E money, along with finalists and other interested scientists, and hundreds of venture capitalists, investment professionals, and entrepreneurs. Just as important is an unstated goal: give an agency which as of 3 years ago didn't exist a patina of legitimacy and, its leaders hope, permanence in a tough budget environment.

As the coming-out party for the fledgling agency got underway today at the Gaylord Convention Center in National Harbor, Maryland, ARPA-E Director Arun Majumdar took to the podium and declared the joint challenges of climate, energy security and economic growth "a sputnik moment" for the United States. But his speech had new details in addition to bombast.

Majumdar explained that ARPA-E hoped to sit between DOE's basic science offices and its mission-driven offices, which include providing renewable energy and capturing carbon from fossil fuel energy sources. "The pushers and the pullers," he called the two sides, since the first "push" new ideas without specific goals in mind and the latter "pull" scientists towards various technical problems like providing desalination at low energy cost. By funding risky stuff, Chu added, DOE hoped to emulate the Pentagon's DARPA agency, which he said "took high risks, [and] expected failures." ARPA-E program managers will serve 4-year terms, encouraging risk-taking and helping prevent stagnation.

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