Saul Griffith first tested a flying wing that could send wind turbines high into the atmosphere from the roof of the MIT Media Lab. At an altitude of 1,000 feet, the wind blasts consistently, making the power source cheaper and more reliable.
But in 2009, after eight years of tinkering, his company Makani Power and its flying wind generators were in trouble. With the recession at its peak, Griffith hit a point familiar to other energy inventors: his ability to make money from his technology was still years away but he couldn’t find new private capital to keep the enterprise afloat.
Into this so-called Valley of Death stepped the federal government with emergency supplies. Makani got a $4 million grant from the Advanced Research Projects Agency-Energy, a program created with bipartisan support under President George W. Bush and first funded under Barack Obama. A few years later he sold Makani to Google Inc.
“ARPA-E is the only reason the project continued to exist.” said Griffith. “If ARPA-E goes away, high-risk energy research will die in this country.”
ARPA-E, which is held its annual conference near Washington this week, has doled out about $1.5 billion to 580 different projects since its first funding in the 2009 stimulus. Modeled after the military’s research arm that’s credited with inventing the internet and GPS, ARPA-E’s stated goal is to help inventors translate science into breakthrough technologies. Many of the ideas sound fantastical: a personal air conditioner that follows you around or a squid-skin inspired shirt to regulate body temperature. None are sure bets, and the program has had its share of failures. A carbon capture technique using enzymes was cancelled.
Now the program itself is at risk of cancellation.
President Donald Trump pledged this week to slash spending across the government, and programs like ARPA-E, which is administered by the Department of Energy, face deep cuts or possible elimination. And, with the antipathy among Trump’s team for the efforts to address climate change under Obama, programs like ARPA-E are near the top of the budget hit list.
“It’s unclear to me what purpose ARPA-E actually plays,” said Jack Spencer, a vice president of Heritage and a former member of Trump’s Energy department transition team. “The Valley of Death is where bad ideas go to die.”
Even before Trump’s inauguration, his Energy department landing team requested “a complete list of ARPA-E’s projects,” according to a leaked memo. Former congressman Mick Mulvaney, Trump’s budget chief, authored an amendment in 2012 that would have slashed its funding. Budget blue prints issued by both the Republican Study Committee, a group of fiscally conservative lawmakers, and the Heritage Foundation called for killing it off.
Heritage also cited a watchdog report that found the agency awarded several grants to companies that had already gotten private financing. Congress should instead make the Energy department focus on doing the basic research and let the private sector figure out how to commercialize it, the group argues.
“We haven’t seen any budget yet so there is nothing for me to comment on there,” Eric Rohlfing, ARPA-E’s acting director said in an interview. “A transition is a complicated process and so what we have been doing is talking with the transition team explaining who we are, what we do, how we do it, and why it’s impactful and successful.”
Like many of the programs in the sights of the administration, killing it outright may be easier proposed than accomplished. ARPA-E has its proponents, and they’re not just among those tinkering in Northern California garages or marching against oil pipelines.
Among its supporters on Capitol Hill are Republican Senators Lisa Murkowski, chairman of the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee, and Lamar Alexander, chairman of the energy panel of the Appropriations Committee. Rick Perry, Trump’s pick to head the Energy department, pledged to be “engaged in” ARPA-E, but indicated it may face some budget cuts. He vowed to work with Congress to ensure “an appropriate funding level.”
“This is not one that I’m terribly worried about,” said Rich Powell, managing director of policy and strategy for ClearPath Action, a group founded to encourage Republicans to support clean energy. Once Trump’s “team engages deeply with these programs they’re going to realize that this is not a place to cut deeply.”
Business heavyweights such as Bill Gates, the Microsoft Corp. founder and Tom Fanning, president of Southern Co., have banded together as part of the American Energy Innovation Council to argue ARPA-E financing should increase to $1 billion a year, about triple its current level. Unlike the Energy department’s loan program, which had the high-profile failure after solar developer Solyndra went bankrupt, ARPA-E provides smaller grants to projects at an earlier stage of development and so the individual risks are lower.
And now proponents have hit on a new way to try and garner support. After eight years of pitching projects on their ability to cut fossil-fuel use and curtail carbon emissions, advocates are making an argument that may resonate with the new administration: It’s all about creating American jobs.
Griffith has moved on from high-flying wind power to a handful of other projects funded by the agency. A more recent endeavor would store natural gas for vehicle use in tubes modeled after the human intestine.
“ARPA-E deserves to be expanded five-fold if we want to make America energy independent and have the jobs of the 21st century,” he said.