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ARPA-E: How the Government Agency With a Name Out of Lost Could "Win the Future" and Save Humanity [Updated]

Get to know the new agency that swinging for the clean energy fences.

[Updated] If you haven't heard of ARPA-E yet, it's high time you get to know it. The acronym breaks down as the Advanced Research Projects Agency—Energy. It's sort of a descendant of the old wildly successful DARPA program that famously birthed the internet, amongst many other pretty phenomenal technological breakthroughs.

The basic premise of ARPA-E, launched under the Department of Energy in 2009, is in investing in high risk, high reward energy tech research. The so-called "breakthrough" technologies that no private investor of sound mind would ever touch, but which could prove world changing solutions to our energy and climate woes. All home runs here, no base hits.

This short video intro to the agency is well worth your two and half minutes:


This week, ARPA-E is hosting an Innovation Summit, and I'm crushed that I'm not there. Here's how the DOE describes what's going on:

This annual summit showcases the most advanced and revolutionary breakthroughs in energy technology today. These aren’t base hits. They’re the potential home runs – the breakthroughs in clean energy innovation that could make it affordable to put solar panels on every house in America, put millions of electric vehicles on the road or even harness wind energy that’s miles and miles above the ground a lot sooner than you might think is possible. We’re talking about truly changing the world – and making the U.S. the global leader in clean energy technologies.


Some pretty fascinating news has been coming out of the summit. Just today, Navy Secretary Ray Mabus announced that the Department of Defense and the DOE would be working together on energy storage solutions. (Which, as you may recall from our Energy Issue, is one of the real core challenges in evolving to a carbon-free energy future.) There have been some supercool reviews of some "bleeding edge" clean tech projects, the best of which can be seen in this great Earth2Tech slide show.

And then there was the ever-entertaining, endlessly-quotable Arnold Schwarzenegger, who recently quipped that "the Hummer isn't the problem, the engine is the problem," gave a keynote in which he all but called for an Arab world style revolution to overthrow the fossil fuel powers that be:

"It is breathtaking to see: people by the hundreds of thousands who want change ... who want to throw off the old order and subvert the status quo. It is fascinating to me how rapidly the debate in the Middle East shifted from -- could the people rise up to could the rulers hang on?" Schwartzenegger said at the United States Department of Energy's ARPA-E Energy Innovation Summit in National Harbor, Md., according to his prepared remarks. "And then when the demonstrations reached a critical mass, the old structures gave way. They could not stand up to the momentum of the future."

"All of which brings me to you here today," the governator continued. "What you in this room also are saying by the work that you do is: We want to subvert the status quo. We want change. Innovation. We want to overturn the old energy order."


Powerful stuff, indeed. Of course, lurking just beneath all the world changing optimism is the threat of serious budget cuts to the ARPA-E program that is just getting its legs. We should be expanding and increasing investment in ARPA-E if our nation really is serious about "winning the future."

Update, 3/3/2011, 11:07am ET: The DOE's Energy Blog has a round up post with bunch of photos and videos up from the summit. They're all worth checking out, but Schwarzenegger's keynote is awesome. Watch it while you eat lunch, and you might just feel optimistic about our energy future this afternoon.


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