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Tina Casey headshot

What Comes Next for ARPA-E in the Age of Environmental Justice?

By Tina Casey
environmental justice

Within days of taking office, President Joe Biden reshaped the entire federal government into one massive arsenal in the service of climate action, with a sharp focus on environmental justice. That means some heavy lifting is ahead for the U.S. Department of Energy.

The agency’s mission has historically emphasized fossil fuels but in recent years it has been focusing more attention on renewables. In that regard, its cutting-edge research office ARPA-E could play a key role in the pursuit of a more just and equitable energy portfolio for the nation.

ARPA-E, renewables, environmental justice and national defense

In some ways, environmental justice is built into the DNA of renewable energy, with its promise of clean air, clean water, resiliency, affordability and employment.

However, the Department of Energy has not turned its attention to renewables as a moral or ethical matter. The main focus is on the Energy Department’s national security mission, which is rooted in the World War II Manhattan Project nuclear program. Nuclear energy research and stewardship of the nation’s nuclear stockpile continue to be important parts of the agency’s portfolio.

The Department of Defense connection also continues to manifest itself in the renewable energy field. One turning point occurred during the Obama administration, when the U.S. Air Force and other branches of the armed services began an intensive effort to deploy their procurement power in support of the Energy Department’s efforts to grow the market for clean technology. Those efforts continued during the Trump administration and culminated in the articulation of a carbon-negative goal last fall.

ARPA-E represents a pre-market level of connection between the departments of Energy and Defense. The acronym stands for Advanced Research Projects Agency - Energy, and it is modeled on a Department of Defense office called Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA). Among other achievements, DARPA is credited with inventing the internet, GPS and Siri.

Similarly, ARPA-E was created to provide public funding for high risk, high reward R&D projects that could have a transformative impact on daily life through the lens of national security.

ARPA-E began operation in 2009, following its creation by Congress through the America COMPETES Act of 2007. The COMPETES Act was a response to clear warning signs that America’s position as a global innovation leader was dissolving, raising fundamental national security issues.

Congress left room for ARPA-E to support improvements in fossil energy technology. However, the main focus is on renewables as well as nuclear energy. Congress tasked ARPA-E with decreasing dependence on foreign energy, reducing greenhouse gas emissions, improving energy efficiency and regaining a leadership position in energy innovation.

Planning today for the sustainable energy landscape of tomorrow

At this point it is too early to assess how ARPA-E will assimilate the Biden administration’s environmental justice mission. In addition, due to ARPA-E’s focus on early stage research, its activities during the Biden administration may not take shape in the market for years to come. Indeed, six years after ARPA-E first opened its doors the National Academy of Sciences took stock of the office and noted that “six years is not long enough to produce observable evidence of widespread deployment of funded technologies.”

Still, NAS also noted “there are clear indications that ARPA-E is making progress toward its statutory mission and goals.”

ARPA-E assessed its progress since last fall and the numbers do indicate the potential for global impact. The office reported that 88 new companies have since launched; 237 started to partner with another U.S. government agency; and 177 teams together have raised almost $5 billion in private sector funding to help advance various technologies closer to market. The office also credits ARPA-E funding with supporting thousands of peer-reviewed research articles and more than 700 U.S. patents.

One indication of ARPA-E’s potential for impact is the green hydrogen market, which seems to have exploded out of nowhere over the past year. In fact, just a few years ago green hydrogen was practically nonexistent on a commercial scale. However, by 2016 ARPA-E was already pumping millions into green hydrogen and green ammonia R&D, helping to kickstart the hydrogen economy and accelerate global decarbonization.

Putting the emphasis on environmental justice

The green hydrogen trend also illustrates how the clean energy transition can create negative impacts unless environmental justice is integrated into the planning process. For example, green hydrogen involves industrial processes, storage, safety, and transportation issues that must be resolved in order to realize community benefits and prevent harm.

In that context, it will be interesting to see how a newly announced round of $100 million in funding for ARPA-E projects will reflect President Biden’s more aggressive approach toward justice and climate action.

The new round of funding comes under the ARPA-E “OPEN” program, which seeks cutting-edge projects in areas that fall outside of targeted research streams.

Historically the OPEN series has provided room for fossil energy projects. However, in announcing the new round of funding the Energy Department’s Chief of Staff, Tariq Shah, hinted that justice and green jobs would factor into the final selection.

“The Department of Energy is committed to empowering innovators to develop bold solutions that will help America achieve net-zero emissions by 2050 while creating millions of good-paying jobs that benefit all Americans,” Shah said, emphasizing that the Department is seeking innovators to “tackle the climate crisis and build a more equitable clean energy economy.”

An all-in approach to renewable energy and environmental justice

Renewable energy is a decarbonization tool that can provide local communities with foundational benefits including cleaner air, affordable power, good paying jobs, and improved energy security and resiliency.

However, the clean power transition does involve broader impacts including land use issues, extractive resources, and the impact of new manufacturing and industrial facilities on local communities. All of these must be taken into consideration by the Department of Energy and ARPA-E as the Biden administration embarks on its climate and environmental justice mission.

Image credit: Thijs Stoop/Unsplash

Tina Casey headshot

Tina writes frequently for TriplePundit and other websites, with a focus on military, government and corporate sustainability, clean tech research and emerging energy technologies. She is a former Deputy Director of Public Affairs of the New York City Department of Environmental Protection, and author of books and articles on recycling and other conservation themes.

Read more stories by Tina Casey