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Jan Lee headshot

DOE's Rick Perry is White House's Unlikely Advocate for Clean Energy Incubator

By Jan Lee

President Trump made news again this year when his office announced that programs that have long supported social needs and business innovation were to be zeroed-out for the 2019 budget.

Programs like the US Agency for International Development (USAID), which provides foreign aid for critically underserved community development, and the federal Low Income Home Energy Assistance, an important conduit of services for low-income families were on the White House’s chopping block.

And while Congress appears to have largely ignored those requests and left programs like USAID and LIHEA intact, one federal grant program is gaining an unlikely defender to its cause.

The program is the Energy Department’s Advanced Research Projects Agency-Energy, or ARPA-E for short, which has wide bipartisan support for one reason: It produces results. It’s the federal government’s equivalent of a startup incubator, serving not only as a funding resource for innovative energy projects, but as an inspiration for startups and other organizations who think they can answer a crucial industry need with disruptive technology. Through its ARPA-E summits and other programs, it brings together potential innovators and encourages technology growth.

ARPA-E’s biggest and unexpected advocate is Energy Department Head Rick Perry, who had once said he would abolish the DOE if he were elected president, lumping it in with commerce and education as extraneous departments.

Today, Perry’s tune is different. After a year on the job, the former governor has come out publicly to admit that he now sees the value in a program that encourages public-private partnerships – including in renewable energy. He’s also vowed to support those initiatives.

And he’s gaining supporters. Congressional Democrats and Republicans, other members of the Energy Department as well as recipients of ARPA-E funding have pointed out that many of the projects that depend on DOE funding are helping to change the course of U.S. technology. A few of the projects include:

  • Alveo Energy’s Prussian Blue Batteries, which provides a cheaper source and method for creating batteries;

  • Applied Materials’ low-cost silicon wafers for solar energy. The project actually dovetails with the president’s latest push to bring solar energy manufacturing home to the U.S.;

  • Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory’s project to turn bacteria into biofuel. University of California’s Nobel Prize winning laboratory has been a repeat recipient of ARPA-E grants over the years, competing in cutting-edge research that would put the U.S. ahead globally when it comes to sustainable fuel production.

But ARPA-E also incentivizes private support of innovation by paving a way for businesses to commit to “follow-up” funding. Projects in 2014 for example, garnered $625 million in private follow-on funding, ensuring the continuation of research that were kickstarted with DOE’s $95 million investment. That 6-to-1 funding is part of the reason that Congress quietly overlooks efforts to stop ARPA-E.

Even though Perry’s efforts to protect ARPA-E may win Trump’s disfavor, it’s helping to highlight an important fact about cutting-edge technology: innovation is built as much through partnership as healthy competition. Many countries, including Israel, Canada and France, are already proving that point with initiatives that are increasing upskilling as well as development funding.

ARPA-E is one of the U.S.’ best avenues to ensuring American businesses can truly compete in the race for tomorrow’s technological edge. Hopefully Perry's new-found advocacy will help increase its resilience and support ahead of next year's budget session, when it could very well find itself back on the list for funding cuts.

Flickr image: Claire Benjamin
Jan Lee headshot

Jan Lee is a former news editor and award-winning editorial writer whose non-fiction and fiction have been published in the U.S., Canada, Mexico, the U.K. and Australia. Her articles and posts can be found on TriplePundit, JustMeans, and her blog, The Multicultural Jew, as well as other publications. She currently splits her residence between the city of Vancouver, British Columbia and the rural farmlands of Idaho.

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