White House builds case for ARPA-E

With budget battles looming, the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) made a preemptive strike in support of one of its boldest clean-energy programs, the Advanced Research Project Agency-Energy (ARPA-E), detailing how six projects that received $23.6 million in seed funding had gone on to pull in more than $100 million in venture capital investment.

Energy Secretary Steven Chu said the private-sector pile-on “indicates that the business community is hungry to invest in truly innovative solutions to the country’s energy challenges.”

ARPA-E got off the ground with a one-time $400 million burst of bucks from the Recovery Act in 2009, but has not received funding since then. In his 2012 budget, President Obama is seeking a whopping $550 million for the program.

The six projects that were highlighted received between $750,000 and $8 million apiece from the government and are in solar and wind energy technologies as well as battery storage. 

Massachusetts-based 1366 Technologies, described by the DOE as “a small startup developing a new way to make silicon wafers – the key part in solar panels – for 80 percent less than the current cost,” harvested the most cash; ARPA-E doled out $4 million to the company, which went on to grab $33.4 million from outside sources.

Even the smallest ARPA-E investment was parlayed into significant funding: General Compression of Newton, Mass., turned its $750,000 in seed money into $12 million from existing and new investors, the DOE said. 

The company used the ARPA-E money for work on a new version of its fuel-free compressed air energy storage technology intended “to enable low-cost grid storage and to help make intermittent renewable power (such as from solar and wind) fully dispatchable.”

That new version was built and is now being tested., the DOE said.

“These game-changing projects are going to ensure America’s energy, economic and environmental prosperity is secure,” explained Chu

“The goal of the ARPA-E program is to swing for the fences, to focus on truly transformative energy research, and that’s exactly what we are seeing.”

Pete Danko, EarthTechling