Clearly undeterred by the GOP’s ongoing effort to cut federal support for clean energy, the Obama Administration has just announced a new $150 million round of funding for cutting-edge research into solar, wind, geothermal, bio-based energy and ocean power along with dozens of other categories related to renewable energy and energy efficiency. The funds are coming through the Advanced Research Projects Agency-Energy (ARPA-E), an agency modeled after DARPA, the legendary Department of Defense research program that developed the Internet. If ARPA-E can come anywhere near that accomplishment, it looks like the U.S. is in for more than a little change in the fossil fuel status quo.
New clean energy tech trumps fossil fuel era
ARPA-E’s funding announcement is still in the draft stage but it calls specifically for advanced energy projects that have real-world applications with “the potential to be disruptive in the marketplace.”
If you’re wondering what that means, the draft announcement provides the example of the Model T Ford. Until the Model T came around, automotive technology was progressing incrementally, in an uneasy co-existence with carriage manufacturing. That could have lasted for generations, but the Model T blew up the transportation marketplace and brought the horse and buggy era to a rapid halt – not necessarily by making a leap in automotive technology per se, but by transforming the production and marketing side.
Sub in “fossil fuels” for “carriage,” and that’s the direction we’re heading in.
ARPA-E primes the pot
ARPA-E was established in the Department of Energy by Congress in 2007 with the mission of kick-starting research leading directly to new tech breakthroughs with strong potential for commercial production, but it was not funded until 2009, when Recovery Act funding became available under the Obama Administration. So far in its short existence, ARPA-E has pumped about $500 million into more than 180 projects.
Renewable energy that skips the middleman
One of the more promising areas of research is the agency’s electrofuels program, which deals with the production of liquid fuels by harnessing the metabolic processes of living microorganisms. Electrofuels basically skip the steps involved in converting fossils or biomass to fuel. ARPA-E is already funding about a dozen projects in this area, and it has just started to solicit a new round. The Department of Defense is also working on some projects of its own involving microbial fuel cells.
Many routes to a new energy future
Electrofuels are just the tip of the iceberg, though. With the new $150 million funding package, ARPA-E is casting a wide net. In addition to renewable fuel technologies, the draft announcement seeks projects relating to water purification, energy-efficient lighting technology and building materials, energy storage, traffic management including self-driving vehicles, and transformative designs for all types of vehicles including aircraft, automobiles, ships, trains, and vehicles powered by human energy.
The beginning of the end for fossil fuels
The agency is even open to looking at breakthrough improvements in conventional power generation including nuclear technologies, as well as new ways to combine old and new energy technologies.
However, as far as fossil fuels go any new research will only delay the inevitable. In the draft announcement, ARPA-E essentially positions its mission as one of preparing the…
“Although the United States possesses significant quantities of some hydrocarbon resources, others are already insufficient to meet domestic demand, and even those resources that are plentiful are finite and will eventually be depleted. Today the United States imports some 9 million barrels of oil per day, roughly half the country’s total need, at a cost of nearly $1 billion per day and accounting for over a third of the US trade deficit. Both coal and natural gas exports from the United States to developing economies will increase price pressures on these vital resources.”
In this context it’s not surprising that fossil fuel industry leaders such as the Koch brothers are reported to have pledged $500 million to thwarting President Obama’s re-election bid – coincidentally or not, the same amount that ARPA-E has already spent on nurturing new energy industries.
Follow Tina Casey on Twitter: @TinaMCasey.
Tina Casey specializes in military and corporate sustainability, advanced technology, emerging materials, biofuels, and water and wastewater issues. Tina’s articles are reposted frequently on Reuters, Scientific American, and many other sites. You can also follow her on Twitter @TinaMCasey and Google+.