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

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.