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Note to media: It’s good the Senate cut the $400 Million for ARPA-E from the stimlus. Ask me why.

By Joe Romm on February 9, 2009 at 1:51 pm

"Note to media: It’s good the Senate cut the $400 Million for ARPA-E from the stimlus. Ask me why."

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The House-passed stimulus bill included $400 million for ARPA-E. That money is nowhere to be found in the Senate stimulus. Hurray!

I’m happy to be quoted on why ARPA-E is more pointless bureaucracy. As I wrote 18 months ago when the law authorizing it passed:

Both chambers overwhelmingly approved the $43 billion “21st Century Competitiveness Act.” The bill has a lot of good stuff in it, but on the down side, it creates an Advanced Research Projects Agency-Energy (ARPA-E) inside the Department of Energy (DOE).

ARPA-E is, as E&E News (subs. req’d) puts it “a special agency within the Energy Department to spur research into breakthrough energy technologies.” Great idea, which is why Congress set up a number of offices decades ago to do exactly the same thing, including the Office of Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy (which I helped run in the 1990s) — which does mostly applied research into breakthrough energy technologies — as well as the Office of Energy Research, which does long-term, basic research into breakthrough energy technologies. ARPA-E is pretty much completely duplicative, but Congress wanted to do something new.

ARPA-E is supposed to be “modeled after the military’s Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency.” But as much as we all love what DARPA has done, the main reason for its success is that the military is the ultimate customer, and and so DARPA doesn’t have to worry about creating commercial technologies (i.e. cost is no object). For DOE, the public is the ultimate customer, and cost is incredibly important, which is why DOE does so much joint research with industry, to make sure we’re not pursuing things that have no commercial prospect.

Yes, DOE’s research into low carbon technologies is woefully underfunded — and much of it is misdirected towards hydrogen cars — so ARPA-E will have some value IF its budget does not come at the expense of currently funded research. Given the massive deficits we’re running, and the Democrats’ pledge to do pay-as-you-go budgeting, however, I expect that DOE research and development funding will be a zero-sum game, and ARPA-E will be pointlessly duplicative bureaucracy.

I would change that final paragraph now. The stimulus has a huge increase in clean energy research, development, demonstration, and deployment. Obama has pledged an even bigger increase over time — some $15 billion a year. So I can’t see a lot of value for the tiny little ARPA-E program, even if the DOE had some brilliant R&D portfolio managers to spare from its vastly larger and more important clean energy programs.

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10 Responses to Note to media: It’s good the Senate cut the $400 Million for ARPA-E from the stimlus. Ask me why.

  1. Joe,

    I am encouraged that you see cost as being “incredibly important.”

    Can we go one step further and agree that real cost should be clearly distinguished from cost without rebate or tax incentive, these being ways to distribute the load? The tax incentive is a load on the public that can be somewhat indeterminate, but it seems likely that the maximum benefit for those in position to realize it should be rolled back into the cost of the solution constructed. If that could be a ground rule, discussions could become somewhat more rational.

  2. Back when Kennedy was president, there was a panel of scientists informing policy, and the 60′s were a decade of significant technological progress. Is there such an officially constituted advisory panel in the works now?

    After the scolding the GAO gave DOE about “sequestration,” it seems clear that the problem is not money, but stubborn persistence in stupid ideas, like hydrogen cars, which hog all of the available resources. Any new money would just go the same way. Before doubling down on disaster, how about a little careful planning about what, exactly, the technology effort will be?

  3. Wilmot McCutchen,

    The process you describe on your website seems very sophisticated and potentially very useful. A true capability to remove NOx from power generator flu gases could enable higher temperature operation of the heat engines involved. I would wonder if the turbulence induced by the mechanism might not cause mixing that could fight against the logically stated tendency of heavier molecules to separate from lighter molecules under a condition of intense acceleration.

    All that said, there is still a significant amount of CO2 released, this of course would be mitigated somewhat if more electricity came out for the same amount of energy put in, thus less CO2 would be the result. Great! But I suspect the magnitudes of the improvement are a little hard to determine in advance. That is where it will all be sorted out, and I hope we get a chance to see the results.

    I doubt you will find my approach as depicted on my website (click my name) any where near as sophisticated as your technology, but still it might be very significant as a climate solution.

    If I were inclined to wager, I would bet that there is more potential to reduce CO2 in my approach which is a car that uses very little energy and a system of cogeneration based on that car and its included equipment.

  4. David Doty says:

    Sorry, Joe, but you’re completely off base here.

    The current DOE is really broken when it comes to support for investigator-initiated innovation. There is no mechanism for funding unsolicited proposals. For a DOE proposal to be funded, it must respond precisely to a narrowly drafted solicitation from the DOE. Indeed there is an office to which unsolicited proposal may be sent, but this office has virtually no budget, either for review or for funding. Their standard response to a scientifically sound proposal that lies outside their existing programs is something like “Your objectives are not aligned with those of the DOE”, or “The DOE doesn’t fund process optimization”…

    The NIH, on the other hand, has helped guide a revolution in health advances in the U.S. over the past three decades because they have consistently welcomed “effectively unsolicited” proposals. (OK. Technically, most NIH and NSF proposals do respond to solicitations, but there are always some solicitations that are so broad the researcher doesn’t even need to look at them before writing his/her proposal, except to know when to send it in.) It is often not even necessary for the author of a proposal to attempt to identify any particular program to which his/her proposal should be submitted. It is only necessary that it appear from the title and the abstract that the proposal is attempting to do something that might be health related and might be an advance in science or technology. The Center for Scientific Review (CSR) does an extremely efficient job of sorting out all the incoming proposals (over 100,000 annually) and sending each one to an appropriate program manager, who in turn sees to it that each proposal is given a respectful peer review on its scientific merits. Of course, if it is immediately obvious that the proposal is garbage, it doesn’t take long to dispose of it. (I speak from experience here. I’ve sat on several CSR committees, and had a number of NIH grants funded.)

    There are lots of good, innovative, energy-related ideas out there that are languishing because the DOE has had no interest in anything they have not decided needs to be worked on. There are several possibilities for fixing this problem. It could begin by increasing the budget for the Office for Unsolicited Proposals by several orders of magnitude – to at least several hundred million dollars – and establishing a division of the Center for Scientific Review to deal with energy-related proposals that are not responding to a specific DOE research topic.

    ARPA-E is proposed as another way to fix this problem, and it could be a better approach than what I’ve been suggesting for many years.

    Now for a case in point. We at Doty Energy have recently simulated (in considerable detail, using well validated software) novel processes that will make it practical to synthesize fuels of all types – gasoline, alcohols, jet fuel, diesel – from waste CO2, water and cheap, off-peak low-carbon energy. The process begins by electrolyzing water to produce the needed renewable hydrogen. Then, a portion of this hydrogen is reacted with the CO2 to produce the renewable carbon monoxide (CO) needed in an advanced Fischer-Tropsch (FT) process to synthesize hydrocarbons and alcohols of all types. With thorough system optimization, 60% of the input electrical energy can end up in the chemical energy in the fuels produced. The electrolyzer operates only when cheap low-carbon energy is available. Sufficient hydrogen is stored to keep the FT reactor operating at a fairly stable rate around the clock.

    These wind-generated carbon-neutral fuels, dubbed WindFuels, will compete when oil is above $40 to $95/bbl, depending mostly on the cost of the off-peak energy. Recycling CO2 into transportation fuels using off-peak renewable energy addresses both the oil and the climate challenges, and it allows complete stabilization of the power grid, no matter how much wind and solar are added. Detailed scientific, engineering, and economics analyses are available at http://windfuels.com/ . We call it RFTS, Renewable Fischer Tropsch Synthesis. Annual WindFuels production per land area in good wind regions will exceed biofuels production density in fertile farming areas by a factor of 4 to 30.

    In many areas, the cost of off-peak wind energy is already often below 2 cents/kWhr and it continues to drop as more wind is added. At this rate, the cost of ethanol and even gasoline from wind and CO2 can be below $1.80/gal. Already, it is sometimes necessary for the energy producers to pay to get rid of their excess energy to maintain grid stability, and wind is only 1% of the grid energy.

    Our analysis indicates WindFuels will be the most promising avenue for carbon-neutral transportation fuels and stabilization of the renewable grid, but the DOE has not been interested in proposals for system process optimization.

    WindFuels is but one example, with which I am personally familiar. I’ve attended half a dozen engineering and scientific conferences (ASME, AIChE, renewables, etc.) over the past year where I’ve crossed paths with tens of thousands of first-rate researchers with motivation, expertise, and excellent ideas, that could be doing sustainable-energy R&D if funding were available. But only a few percent are lucky enough to be doing something the DOE thinks needs supported. Supporting an additional 1,000 small research groups (in industry and academia, working on quality sustainable-energy R&D that they are excited about, and publishing the results) at the level of $70K to $1M per year would only cost $300M annually, and it would revolutionize the field.

    Bottom line: we need to be investing an additional $300M minimum annually into investigator-initiated sustainable-energy R&D. The DOE doesn’t understand the meaning of investigator-initiated research. ARPA-E could go a long way to fixing this problem.

    The DOE also needs to be continually adding new R&D programs (and winding down some old ones) as results from new R&D identifies promising, new topics.

    Fortunately, it looks like a number of top-level managers at DOE are slowing warming to the notion of WindFuels. Maybe it’s time for you to look outside your garden too.

    [JR: I should just delete this self-serving nonsense, but I'll let it go with this admonition. Nothing is a bigger waste of valuable carbon free renewable electricity than electrolyzing it into hydrogen so that you can later turn it back into electricity with a fuel cell (or into something else). The Bush Department of Energy spent more than $2 billion on hydrogen and hydrogen fuel cell related R&D. I'm certainly not defending that and indeed I have criticized it, but if they couldn't see fit to fund your work with all that money, perhaps that should tell you something. There is essentially no chance whatsoever that ARPA-e is going to pour more money down the sinkhole of hydrogen.]

  5. David Doty says:

    You surprise me Joe. You apparently don’t know that with just 1% of the grid energy currently coming from wind, grid power was still at negative price 3% of the time last year throughout the wind corridor. Energy storage is crucial to increasing utilization of renewable energy. Most energy storage methods that have been advocated have capital cost of $150 to $1000/kWhr. The container component cost of energy storage in stable liquid fuels, on the other hand, is only $0.03/kWhr.

    And by the way, we did not begin to seek DOE support for this work until about 9 months ago. So perhaps I was a little too hard on them for their slowness in coming around to our novel approach to energy storage.

  6. Steven Chu says:

    Funding ARPA E at the level of 18 billion dollars will be key to the advancement of key new energies such as; new fuel research,Zero Point Devices, new class of solar cells, and Biomass substitutes for oil. We are entering a new age of energy, arpa will push the United State a head in the race of energy. with the new age dawning it time we advance. Although DOD is the primary direct customer for most successful DARPA-developed technologies, i.e. the military procures the ultimate systems, and devices, DOE would not in this sense be the direct customer for ARPA-E. In other words, it is really the defense industry that is the customer for DARPA who then in turn uses its research to develop products it hopes is useful for DOD. DOD rarely builds products itself. Similarly, the energy industry could use the results of ARPA-E to similarly turn its research to develop technologies for itself, utilities, and the general public.

  7. Although most of the “zero-point device” claims on the Internet are nonsense, there is indeed some theoretical support for the possibility of tapping into it. Our recently obtained U.S. Patent 7,379,286, Quantum Vacuum Energy Extraction, is being explored at the University of Colorado. So far results are inconclusive. Anyway, I’m glad to hear Chu say that even this area of investigation is on the table. It’s high risk but revolutionary should it succeed.

  8. Note to moderator: I forgot to include my email on the previous posting. It is astro@calphysics.org

  9. Jim Bullis says:

    David Doty,

    Your comments about the way new ideas are received by potential sponsors has a lot of truth to it.

    But using wind energy to convert CO2 to fuel would seem to have merit only if there was no better way to store off peak power. It seems way simpler to just use pumped hydro storage using old time motors and pumps. These should get fairly good efficiency that is hard to beat with chemical processes. There is some sense to thinking that the CO2 might be turned into fuel and then back to CO2 with the result that the last use of the fuel would displace burning of some other fuel. This would happen with direct use of the wind power or use of that energy after it was stored in hydro systems. So the competition would be between relative efficiencies and the comparative development costs. So maybe I am missing something, but it looks like a hard sell to overcome the advantage of pumped hydro as storage.

    A curious thing is that where hydro is used continuously around the clock, as in California, the effect of pumped hydro can be accomplished simply by turning off the flow at off hours. But that would save a lot of money, and we are not interested in that in California.

  10. Jim Bullis says:

    We all have some form of self interest going on.

    However:

    Bernard Haisch seems to be working to violate the laws of thermodynamics.

    David Doty seems to be proposing a system that can better be done with existing resources or improved application. Maybe the grid can be improved to help here. But it requires scientific progress of uncertain outcome.

    Jim Bullis (that is me) is advocating a new kind of car and an associated power generation system. There is nothing scientific required. The only uncertainty is whether people can get over the way Henry Ford set up the car and the way power generation was planned 100 years ago. Life could mostly go on like it has. My car concept is about as complicated as a semi-truck and my approach to power generation was demonstrated 100 years ago.

    The combination of the two seems to be especially important since the car size enables a widely distriubuted network of small sources. This is like they talk about in “Perfect Power” except the generator machinery is free since it is already in the cars.

    Looking at http://www.miastrada.com/references we can see that by far the largest man made CO2 sources are transportation and electric power generation. About 65% of the transportation emissions are from light duty vehicles, which means cars. A plan that would cut out 80% of emissions from cars and would cut out about 25% of the emissions from power generation would seem to merit consideration. In light of these opportunities improving the grid seems kind of minor.