Scientists Praise Energy Innovation Office Trump Wants to Shut Down

Source: By BRAD PLUMER, New York Times • Posted: Thursday, June 15, 2017

The Advanced Research Projects Agency-Energy was lauded in a report. The idea behind the agency is that it could fill gaps, such as for solar companies that are often more focused on deploying today’s photovoltaic technology rather than searching for novel materials that could vastly improve the yield of solar cells a decade from now. Mike Blake/Reuters

WASHINGTON — The debate over the future of energy innovation in the United States was renewed on Tuesday when a panel convened by the National Academy of Sciences released an in-depth report praising a key research office that President Trump wants to eliminate.

The Advanced Research Projects Agency-Energy, or ARPA-E, was created in 2007 under President George W. Bush to fund research into long-shot technologies, such as advanced batteries or algae-based biofuels, that might one day prove useful for tackling climate change and other energy challenges.

The animating idea was that private firms often lack the patience to invest in risky technologies that may take years to pay off. Solar companies, for instance, are often more focused on deploying today’s photovoltaic technology rather than searching for novel materials that could vastly improve the yield of solar cells a decade from now. A nimble energy agency, modeled after a similar program within the Pentagon, could fill those gaps.

ARPA-E has attracted a fair share of criticism in recent years: The Heritage Foundation, a conservative think tank, has arguedthat too many of the agency’s early grants went to companies that had previously received private investment for similar technologies, suggesting that the agency was not always filling a need by pursuing high-risk areas of research. And in his 2018 fiscal year budget, Mr. Trump proposed abolishing ARPA-E, which currently spends about $300 million per year, arguing that “the private sector is better positioned to advance disruptive energy research.”

On Tuesday, however, the panel of experts convened by the National Academy of Sciences said it had “found no signs that ARPA-E is failing.”

To the contrary, the panel said in its evaluation that the agency had made vital progress in nudging forward research on projects like advanced carbon capture and grid-scale battery storage. And the report’s authors suggested that much of this research was in high-risk areas that would not have otherwise been pursued by the private sector, echoing the conclusions of a 2012 investigation by the Government Accountability Office.

“ARPA-E has made significant contributions to energy R. and D. that likely would not take place absent the agency’s activities,” Pradeep Khosla, chairman of the panel that wrote the report and chancellor of the University of California, San Diego, said in a statement.

Half of the research projects funded by ARPA-E so far have published the results of their research in peer-reviewed journals, and 13 percent have resulted in patents. “All of these are positive indicators for technologies on a trajectory toward commercialized products,” the report said.

The expert panel conceded that early-stage research is always an uncertain enterprise, and it is unclear which bets being made today might eventually prove revolutionary down the road. ARPA-E’s funding of research into new semiconductor materials could one day help companies build electronic gadgets that use far less energy than today’s versions — or it could be a dead end.

“It is often impossible to gauge what will prove to be transformational; tests or breakthroughs that garner big headlines can end up being underwhelming in the long run, whereas small, incremental tweaks can turn out to enable major shifts in technologies or processes,” the report said.

Still, the panel praised ARPA-E’s culture of risk-taking and urged patience with the agency, noting that it has been funding research for only six years and that it could take much longer for the agency’s full impact to be appreciated.

It is unclear if ARPA-E will have the chance to prove itself, given Mr. Trump’s stated desire to zero out the agency — part of his proposal to slash a wide range of research programs within the Energy Department. Congress will ultimately have the final say, and many influential Republicans have praised ARPA-E in the past, including Senator Lisa Murkowski, Republican of Alaska, who gave a keynote address at the agency’s innovation summit meeting in Maryland last year.