Inside the government agency shaping the future of energy

Derived from the DARPA blueprint, ARPA-E was created as part of the Department of Energy in 2007 to drive similar energy innovations. Since then, it has awarded more than $3 billion in funding to more than 1,400 advanced energy research projects, and it has helped bring new technologies to market. US Energy Secretary Jennifer Granholm called the government’s energy “moonshot factory.”

ARPA-E swore in its new director, Evelyn Wang, in January. Wang took a leave of absence from his position as head of the Department of Mechanical Engineering at MIT to manage the agency. We sat down to discuss what the future holds for energy technology, what challenges lie ahead, and how to measure progress in early-stage research. Here are some excerpts from our conversation, edited for clarity and length.

What role do you see ARPA-E playing in the development of energy technology today, and how does it relate to the broader Department of Energy?

Energy technologies will sometimes take a decade or more to really be deployed in a meaningful and meaningful way. I think a lot of the work that the rest of the Department of Energy is always focused on has a road map, and they focus on near-term wins.

We’re really focused on high-risk, high-reward, potentially transformative energy technologies, and I think we’re covering a huge space in terms of getting something off the ground. aspects until the practical realization of a prototype that can be commercialized. in the future.

And so I think there are complementary aspects, but we’re always different because of the fact that we’re working on these risky, longer-term technological innovations. That’s where ARPA-E is a big force, because of the fact that we’re really taking things that we don’t know if they’re going to work or not, but that could change the energy landscape. And that’s something I think a lot of other agencies don’t go through.

What are some potential areas ripe for energy innovation?

In the near term, we are thinking a lot about how we can improve semiconductor materials, for example, to create a more efficient grid. And we want to think about how we hide our grid – getting the cables underground is central to many of our new endeavors.

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