Innovative Energy

By Alexandra Deluca

ARPA-E: The energy industry’s accelerator.

Some people have heard of the Defense Advance Research Projects Agency (DARPA). Since its inception in 1958 by President Dwight D. Eisenhower in the aftermath of Russia’s Sputnik launch, the advanced research arm of the Department of Defense has been responsible for cutting-edge military technologies such as stealth aircraft and artificial intelligence. It has also ushered in technologies that dramatically impact daily life, including the Internet and GPS.

Not as many people are aware of a younger federal agency, conceived in DARPA’s image, that focuses on supporting potentially disruptive technologies for the entire energy technology sector: Advanced Research Projects Agency-Energy (ARPA-E).

Jennifer Gerbi and Eric Rolfing. Photos by: Ana L. Ka’ahanui.

Just as the Space Race spurred DARPA, a 2007 National Academies report, “Rising Above the Gathering Storm: Energizing and Employing America for a Brighter Economic Future,” identified the need to stimulate innovation via a research and development (R&D) arm of the Department of Energy. ARPA-E was not funded until the America COMPETES Act in 2009, with $400 million “and no people,” says Eric Rohlfing, deputy director for technology for ARPA-E, with a laugh.

“It was a very exciting and interesting time early on,” he adds. “We’ve stabilized now and have regulator appropriation funding from Congress. We’ve evolved, but the basic tenant of funding cutting-edge R&D is still the same.

“We see our role as trying to take concepts coming from science, [turning] them into early stage prototypes and [then] the technology so that the private sector can turn it into a commercial product. That’s ARPA-E in a nutshell.”

The agency has a wide range of activities—with some projects nearer term to market than others. Since the first awards in 2010, ARPA-E has invested more than $1 billion across nearly 500 projects. There have been 30 programs and three open funding solicitations. ARPA-E hires program directors from both industry and academia to develop these concepts and manage project portfolios, says Rohlfing. “We hire the best and the brightest, who are really passionate about making a change in the energy landscape.”

These program directors work with the research and commercial communities to advance a concept that they believe will have a big impact on energy usage or efficiency. After a series of engagements and workshops, a funding opportunity is issued. “These [opportunities] define why we are interested in an area and why we think there would be a large impact if you can achieve the technology targets we specify and…they solicit applications from the research community,” Rohlfing says. Although it is competitive, he adds, he believes that ARPA-E has a good process for picking research projects that are both high risk and feasible.

Once they are selected, the details of the award must be negotiated along with quarterly evaluations, milestones and deliverables schedules. Directors support projects to “manage them toward success,” says Jennifer Gerbi, a program director at ARPA-E. “You can put money and effort into tech, but if there are barriers of commercialization, it won’t have an impact,” she adds.

One of those projects, Gerbi says, is ARPA-E’s DELTA program, which she took over about a year and a half into its inception. “Delivering Efficient Local Thermal Amenities” aims to cut energy use for heating and cooling by modifying the space around individuals as opposed to the entire building. Think something like water-cooled shoes or a heated chair. When considering that HVAC accounts for 30 percent of all energy use in the United States, “if we can reduce the amount by 1 percent, that is a huge impact,” she says,

“We look at efficiency from soup to nuts—from the generation of energy to its transmission,” says Rohlfing. “Power electronics, which convert DC current into AC current that you transmit, are everywhere and increasing the efficiency and capability of those can have a huge impact. It’s not something a consumer thinks about in terms of energy efficiency—they think of appliances.”

They may also think of windows, which are the subject of a new program: SHIELD, or Single Pane, Highly Efficient, Lucid Design. “We spend some time thinking up what we think are clever acronyms,” Rohlfing says with a chuckle.

While some people may think single-pane windows went the way of the dinosaurs, they still comprise a large amount of window stock in the United States. “By our estimate, if we replaced or retrofitted those with something about twice as energy efficient, we would save one percent of all domestic energy use. [This is especially so for heating] in northern climates where single-pane windows exist on historic buildings, or other places where their structural integrity [rules out replacement.]”

“I’m sitting in an office right now with single-pane windows, with a beautiful view of the Potomac, but it is freezing cold in the winter,” he adds. SHIELD is trying to develop inexpensive, easy to apply coatings that can go on existing single-pane window stock to provide additional thermal insulation and condensation prevention—while maintaining a clear window and avoiding haze. In mid-May, after vetting final proposals, ARPA-E announced $31 million in funding for 14 projects from places such as University of Colorado Boulder, Aspen Aerogels out of Massachusetts, and Argonne National Laboratory in Illinois.

“This is definitely one of our more nearer-term projects,” he adds. “You can see some of these in the market in 5 to 7 years.”

Another promising program that came out of an open solicitation—“Every three years we throw the doors open wide and welcome all ideas,” Rohlfing says—was “Indoor Reality,” a thermal mapping program for buildings, carried by backpack, that can perform a scan and energy audit of a room in minutes. The program, out of University of California Berkeley, is also finding a practical use in the certification of new buildings.

“We support a variety of people who are passionate about energy innovation and left whatever comfort zone they were in and are just pushing as hard as they can to get their technology to be successful—and it’s exciting to work with those types of people,” Rohlfing says. “We are trying to displace some incumbent technologies that have been there for a long, long time and it’s a challenge.”