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Off to a Fast Start: House Science Committee Hearing on ARPA-E

Richard M. Jones
Number 11 - January 28, 2010  |  Search FYI  |   FYI Archives  |   Subscribe to FYI

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“Business as usual is not a viable option.” - ARPA-E Director Arun Majumdar

Less than a year after the Advanced Research Projects Agency - Energy received its first funding, the House Science and Technology Committee held a January 27 hearing for what its chairman, Bart Gordon (D-TN) called ARPA-E’s “first annual checkup.” Judging from the reaction of the committee’s Democratic and Republican members, and witnesses from the private sector, ARPA-E has performed well.

ARPA-E was established in 2007, but was not appropriated funding until last February when it received a total of $415 million. Of that, $400 million was in economic stimulus funding that must be obligated by September 30 of this year. The agency received 3,700 concept papers following its first Funding Opportunity Announcement in April 2009. Three hundred and thirty-four full applications were requested, from which 37 projects were selected. Thirty-five of the 37 selections were awarded, ARPA-E Director Arun Majumdar told the committee, by January 15 of this year, setting a record within the Department of Energy. “These 37 projects constituted the best ideas that, if successful, could be potential game-changers in the energy sector,” he said. The projects total $151 million, with an average award size of $4 million for a maximum of three years. The deadline for a $100 million second Funding Opportunity Announcement closed earlier this month, resulting in 600 concept papers, with 30 to 40 project awards to be announced this spring. Workshops are being organized for this spring that will be used to guide the third Funding Opportunity Announcement.

Members on both sides of the aisle, even those such as committee Ranking Republican Ralph Hall (R-TX) who were initially unenthusiastic if not opposed to ARPA-E’s creation, expressed general agreement with the testimony of Majumdar and the other private sector witnesses. All are troubled by the loss of U.S. market share in key technologies. Majumdar’s written testimony contains two exhibits that illustrate this problem well: one shows the U.S. market share and shipment of photovoltaic solar cells falling with a cliff like profile from 45 percent to less than 10 percent. Even worse is the U.S. manufacturing volume of Lithium-ion batteries, found in a wide range of consumer goods. “It is noteworthy that the materials and chemistry that are used in these batteries were largely discovered here, yet the United States has about 1 percent of the global manufacturing volume,” said Majumdar.

The other witnesses - Charles Vest, President of the National Academy of Engineering; John Denniston, Partner of the venture capital firm Kleiner, Perkins, Caufield and Byers; Anthony Atti, President and CEO of Phononic Devices; and John Pierce, Vice President of Technology at DuPont Applied BioSciences - gave worrisome testimony about the ability of the U.S. firms to successfully bring research discoveries in areas such as clean energy into the marketplace. While acknowledging that ARPA-E is evolving, there was a general consensus that it offers the potential to increase U.S. market share of future energy technologies, and with it, high-paying American jobs, while decreasing U.S. dependency on foreign energy sources and carbon emissions.

Committee chairman Gordon has been a strong supporter of ARPA-E, and played a critical role in its establishment and funding. His opening statement summarizes the thinking of his fellow committee members, and the private sector witnesses:

“I have followed very closely the progress of ARPA-E, and I can safely say that I am very encouraged by what I have seen. Dr. Majumdar and his team understand their mission better than anyone. They understand that their charge is to be innovative not only in the projects they undertake, but also in how they undertake them. They appear unafraid of confronting the traditional bureaucratic hurdles and trying new models for spurring innovation.”

Note: ARPA-E is holding an Energy Innovation Summit on March 1-3 in the Washington area. Further information on this conference is available here.

Richard M. Jones
Media and Government Relations Division
American Institute of Physics
rjones@aip.org
301-209-3095