Science, Silver Buckshot, and ‘All of The Above’
Negotiating Energy R&D Policy at ARPA-E Energy Summit 2012
The third annual Advanced Research Projects Agency-Energy, or ARPA-E, Energy Innovation Summit, held February 27–29, was not really a Woodstock for energy technology geeks, although it had its analogous rockstar moments. It was more like the Oscars for energy technology geeks, with ARPA-E, the new unit of the U.S. Department of Energy, as sole award recipient. True, the summit hosted serious discussion on the momentous energy issues of the day. But there was an unmistakable air of celebration infusing the Gaylord National Resort and Convention Center.
It was hard for some to not get caught up in the excitement. “Can you believe Bill Gates is sitting in the next row?” gushed my seatmate, as America’s wealthiest person prepared to take the stage. An hour later, following a coffee break, my friend beamed, computer-phone in hand. “He let me take his picture!”
Past summits of DOE’s highest-profile unit have been similarly staged as extravaganzas liberally spiced with star power, and this year was no exception. Some very heavy hitters—including FedEx chief Fred Smith, former Wal-Mart CEO Lee Scott, and former President Bill Clinton—joined Gates in offering their wit and wisdom on the energy challenges facing America to grad students, principal investigators, lab users, and venture capitalists. All testified to the growing stature of ARPA-E and the salutary power of innovation to quickly cure America’s energy and economic ills.
Charging the innovation blunderbuss
If the summit had an organizing principle, it was “All of The Above,” or AOTA—the capacious maxim introduced by President Barack Obama in his 2012 State of the Union address. It is shorthand for developing all forms of energy in ways that satisfy practically every policy objective you care to name: job creation, energy independence, and preserving the American energy lifestyle while halting global warming.
While the “silver bullet” approach implies a single solution can be found to our climate and energy challenges, “silver buckshot” more realistically asserts that solutions will be found through a range of approaches.
Actually, AOTA is largely a continuation of the longstanding de facto national policy of supplying plentiful cheap energy from all readily available sources. Sustainability is a relatively recent addendum to this 1945 imperative, and to energy R&D policy falls the task of squaring the circle: securing plentiful, cheap energy while reducing global warming emissions. Where does ARPA-E fit in with what could charitably be described as a Herculean agenda? Aristides Patrinos, a former DOE manager now working for J. Craig Venter’s Synthetic Genomics, provided one of the catchiest one-liners in a summit awash with innovation metaphors. Speaking of the biofuels sector but capturing the zeitgeist, Patrinos held that what the community of researchers sought was not a silver bullet but a “silver buckshot.”
Taking a page from the Pentagon
Skeptics might point out that a shotgun is no smart weapon. At any rate, ARPA-E’s business model of lean, public/private cost-shared, collaborative R&D is widely admired. The formula goes something like this: A handful of program managers empowered to solicit proposals and circumvent peer review work closely with applicants and awardees, using dollops of seed money to develop high-risk, high-payoff ideas for breakthrough power and energy technologies that, for whatever reason, have not been pursued by industry but that, in innovation-policy parlance, are potential “game-changers.” In short, these technologies are intended to reshape the market without benefit of public subsidy beyond an initial push.
This model was lifted from the playbook of the Pentagon, whose Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, or DARPA, has garnered fame for its contributions to the IT revolution, among other innovations. The origins of this plan date back to 2005, when a group of powerful academics, captains of industry, and bureaucrats (including Steven Chu, then director of Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory) studied ways the academy, industry, and government could mobilize science and technology in producing jobs and cheap, clean energy. One idea was to create a DARPA in the DOE.
Legislated in the American Competes Act of 2007 and enabled with Recovery Act money in 2009, ARPA-E has in many ways become the energy agency’s public face. With a permanent staff of less than 30 people and a budget of $275 million in FY 2012, this tiny office signifies a much-cherished ideal: technocratic expertise that can sidestep sclerotic partisan politics and intelligently deploy federal resources in nurturing entrepreneurship without picking winners—anathema in a nominally free-enterprise society.
In the non-nuclear alternative energy sector, however, the practical result is what I’ve elsewhere referred to as “quasi-” or “semi-planning.” Evolving as a tacit compromise between the progressive impulse of the liberal tradition and the small-government impulse of the Republican tradition over the past three decades, quasi-planning in the energy sector allows for limited support of certain kinds of early-stage R&D but not the sort of sustained support (in the form of tax breaks, direct subsidies, infrastructure construction, foreign policy initiatives, and procurement) that helped build the existing, largely fossil-fuel-based energy regime over the past century. It is in this highly planned energy economy that the mainstreams of the Democratic and the Republican parties has been and remains heavily invested. On numerous occasions, this inconvenient truth would emerge to temper the encomiums lavished on the spirit of innovation during the energy summit.
History as a guide
In keeping with the penchant of late-modern American political discourse for fall/redemption parables, Chu used the narrative arc of the early aviation industry to illustrate politically correct government intervention and ARPA-E’s role in it: An early lead (the Wright Flyers, “unpicked winners”) lost to European competitors was regained thanks to mild state support in the form of R&D (National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics) and regulation (Kelly Air Mail Act of 1925, Air Commerce Act of 1926).
Analogies are always imperfect, and simple ones can be deceiving when used to illustrate complex dynamics. There is a good deal of difference between the aviation industry and the energy industry, a vast and variegated set of enterprises spanning practically every economic sector. And this fossil-fuel-centric industry is not exactly suffering these days. Its constituent enterprises are among the world’s largest and richest. What Chu was alluding to was the tiny U.S. renewable energy sector (8 of 98 quads of energy consumed in 2010) and the trend that has seen the manufacturing of homegrown innovations (the photovoltaic cell, for example) shift overseas.
And therein lies the rub. Deriving from traditional Democratic “big tent” political discourse, All Of The Above implies peaceful coexistence among competing energy interests. Sixty years of AOTA energy policies, however, have produced vast amounts of sunk investments that energy R&D policy will be hard-pressed to quickly alter.
It would be an understatement to say that ARPA-E has an ambitious mandate. The agency typically does not support basic research, instead engaging projects in relatively advanced stages of development, usually at the level of component validation at laboratory scale—what, in bureaucratic argot, is known as Technology Readiness Level 4, or TRL 4. With programs lasting two or three years, ARPA-E can probably shepherd them not much higher than the level of pilot-scale prototype, or TRL 6. So the agency’s position in the innovation chain is relatively high upstream.
The message to the venture capitalists and executives appeared to be “We’re doing our part; are you?”
A key problem, as with DARPA, is finding partners to accept partly completed projects. Here, ARPA-E is handicapped in a way its namesake is not. Whereas DARPA has the advantage of a mother agency—the U.S. Department of Defense—that drives the serial manufacture of innovations through fleet procurement, ARPA-E cannot get similar support from DOE. And innovation works quite differently in the energy sector, as Bill Gates observed (though Gates neglected to mention that he supports research in a kind of breeder nuclear reactor, a complex technology controversial for its production of plutonium). Lead times for innovation are measured in decades, not five-year cycles, much less ARPA-E’s narrow window.
No surprise, then, that in their invocation of the traditions and culture of American innovation, DOE officials seemed to be appealing to patriotic potential suitors. Arun Majumdar, ARPA-E’s director, warned that unless we acted now, many of the innovations his agency gestated would be manufactured overseas. The message to the venture capitalists and executives in the audience appeared to be “We’re doing our part; are you?”
Energy ecosystem breakthroughs and setbacks
Matchmaking was probably a premier intent of the ARPA-E summit planners. Whether the requisite connections can be built out of three days of intensive networking remains to be seen. For the most part, summit keynotes tended to avoid a direct frontal approach to such questions, preferring to dwell instead on the principle of interinstitutional and interdisciplinary collaboration. A key meme was the “energy ecosystem,” with its connation of perfect balance between organizations responsible for basic research (academic and government labs) and organizations responsible for applying it (industry). One got a sense of a more complex reality in the panel sessions. The case of Envia Systems, an ARPA-E poster child, was instructive. The advanced battery startup company based in Newark, California, used the occasion of the summit to announce the highest energy density yet achieved in a lithium ion battery—more than 400 watt hours per kilogram—doubling the power of the best existing designs. When commercialized, claimed the company, the technology will slash the price of existing lithium ion battery packs by 50 percent.
By any standard, this is an impressive achievement. But Envia faces challenges that go well beyond ARPA-E’s purview. CEO Atul Kapadia cited high capital costs and the difficulty of finding qualified electrochemists—a long-neglected discipline in the United States. If the goal of energy R&D policy is to create jobs in America—and ARPA-E officials repeatedly reminded summiteers that it was—Envia faces a difficult road ahead because its biggest competitors are established Asian and European firms. With few comparative advantages in the United States, Envia was compelled to cleave manufacturing from R&D, package it with an IP firewall, and offshore it to China.
The Solyndra affair illustrated the difficulties of building industrial sectors from scratch based on leapfrog technologies.
The difficulties of attempting to build industrial sectors from scratch based on leapfrog technologies were graphically illustrated in the Solyndra affair. Nurtured with government loan guarantees beginning in 2009, the Fremont, California, startup developed its unique-but-expensive copper indium gallium (di)selenide thin-film photovoltaic technology during a period when the price of conventional silicon-based solar panels was falling, thanks to a combination of slackening demand brought on by the recession, the decision of some European countries to phase out subsidies, and the decision of Asian manufacturers to further rationalize production of existing lines of photovoltaic technology. Ultimately, cost trumped performance, and Solyndra was unable to compete.
Refereeing the game change
How does silver buckshot work in practice? The DOE approach to energy systems for transportation is instructive. The federal government has long supported research in a range of technologies, including battery electric, fuel-cell electric, and alternative “drop-in” liquid fuels that can easily be introduced into the existing infrastructure, as well as more exotic substances such as hydrogen that would require significant modification of production and distribution networks. But all of these systems, even drop-in fuels, present considerable and disparate infrastructure challenges, whether on the upstream production or downstream distribution sides. Concurrent development would seem to significantly complicate investment and planning.
Take ARPA-E’s liquid fuels research program, for example. Its main effort in 2010 involved the so-called electrofuels. Predicated as a superior alternative to photosynthetic biofuels, which are limited by the low efficiency of photosynthesis (ranging from 0.1 percent to 8 percent), electrofuels are made from renewable feedstocks, including water and carbon dioxide, in processes enabled by electricity from silicon-based industrial photovoltaic technology (anywhere from 8 percent to 20 percent efficient) and nonphotosynthetic organisms or cheap metal catalysts. In 2011, however, ARPA-E began supporting photosynthetic-based biofuels in its Plants Engineered to Replace Oil, or PETRO, program. The casual observer can’t help but wonder if this strategy doesn’t pit programs against one another.
“Isn’t that the point of the system?” remarked Sally Adee, the New Scientist feature editor. Let a thousand flowers bloom, and see which ones survive. And why can’t different approaches be complementary in certain circumstances? FedEx chief Smith revealed that his company was experimenting with hybrid electric and saw lithium battery electrification as the way forward, although he suggested that the cheaper, short-term solution would involve converting the ground delivery fleet to natural gas. With the path to the post-fossil-fuel world opaque, one could argue that it makes good strategic sense to hedge.
In the quasi-planned alternative energy sector, however, the investment community will doubtless play a similar game. Given that ARPA-E’s raison d’être is to exploit ideas ripe for commercialization—not to determine their technical feasibility—one could argue that supporting concurrent high-risk projects dilutes scarce resources, especially during a recession.
The elephant in the room is that, on a playing field (or firing range) tipped heavily in favor of fossil-fuel interests, even a few pellets from a cone of silver buckshot can reinforce the status quo. One frequently cited game-changing product of collaborative R&D is hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, a technology developed with DOE assistance that enabled unconventional plays in shale gas. Sen. Christopher Coons (D-DE) insisted that in supporting this technology, the government did not pick a winner. This is true, in a narrow sense: Fracking did not benefit one specific company. But it is of far greater value to established integrated operators, which can use cheap natural gas to build market share, than it is for capital-poor independents.
Inexpensive gas will also make the growth of certain renewable energy fields that much more difficult. This case underscored the political barriers to the quest for sustainability—a reality surely known to innovators and entrepreneurs but one they probably don’t much care to mull on. Oddly, in a summit committed to celebrating their culture, renewable energy researchers were often obliquely reminded of this fact. House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-CA), for example, boasted of the remarkable quadrupling of active rigs in the oil patch that occurred under President Obama’s watch.
In citing this nugget Pelosi doubtless had one eye on rising gasoline prices, perceived as a political millstone in an election year. But new wells won’t bring quick relief at the pump for rather obvious reasons, not least of which is that refining capacity in the United States has hardly grown in 30 years and that refiners have increasingly looked to export markets as domestic demand has waned in the recession. In this audience, Rep. Pelosi likely caused more anxiety than relief. She could well have taken a page in situational awareness from headliner former President Clinton, who correctly predicted that the summit would likely not make the front page of the Washington Post unless he said something to embarrass the secretary of state.
Risk, accountability, and the politics of sustainability
At the event Clinton kept it clean, dwelling entirely on domestic politics. And in fairness to Pelosi, practically none of the other (mainly Democratic) political keynotes directly acknowledged the ways AOTA undermined the alternative energy sector. Most chose to highlight the intransigence and bloody-mindedness of the opposition on questions of energy and climate science. With conservatives long playing the spoiler in energy R&D politics, resisting state involvement in “soft” technologies based on wind and sun, Democrats like Sen. Jeff Bingaman (NM), chair of the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee, calculated that shifting the discursive locus of energy policy from “renewability” to “low and zero-carbon” would bring Republicans with interests in “harder” energy systems such as natural gas and nuclear power into the congressional clean energy fold. But this did not happen, observed Sen. Bingaman. Clean energy, he chided, should not be a partisan issue.
Failure is a natural and even necessary part of the creative process; discouraging risk-taking would undermine the American system of innovation.
And yet it is, with consequences that are as much a limiting factor in technoscientific progress as the physical qualities of materials. The Solyndra case well illustrated the weaknesses of the technocratic approach of using energy R&D policy to shape energy policy. When moderator John Podesta raised the issue with Gates and Chu, the energy secretary noted that when the Democratic-controlled Congress directed DOE to invest in new energy companies in 2009 at the height of the recession, it also made a $10 billion loss provision. Chu’s message was that failure is a natural and even necessary part of the creative process, and that discouraging risk-taking would undermine the American system of innovation.
Not all in the audience were impressed by this explanation. “That was a bit glib,” sniffed my mustachioed seatmate, a gentleman with an aura of venture capital. Yet such reasoning is popular in influential science, industry, and government circles. Naturally, Republicans sought to exploit the Solyndra affair, although they showed little appetite for a thoroughgoing inquiry into the fundamental premises of energy R&D policy.
But was Solyndra really a victim of market forces? After all, the federal government expressly intervened on the company’s behalf to overcome “market failure” at a time when the broader dynamics of American deindustrialization—the shift by manufacturers to countries offering low wages, low taxes, and low-cost inputs—were only too well-understood. There is a good deal of difference between risk in basic research and risk in industrial technology development. In not paying attention to trends in conventional silicon manufacturing and backing a company whose leapfrog strategy was optimized for pre-recessionary times, it could be argued that the federal government did not make a sober, informed guess but rather a reckless bet. The edification of risk has become a hallmark of late capitalist policymaking, but cynics might wonder whether this has become a convenient way of rationalizing poor industrial intelligence and bad management.
Is it unfair to judge the government’s alternative energy program in light of a single failure, however spectacular? (Actually there have been several.) One would have expected the administration and the Democratic congressional leadership to have been acutely aware of the fact that in the legislative realm, with its regularly shifting balance of forces, failure could be interpreted much differently than it was in R&D culture. The proximate effect of the Solyndra affair may be the complication of the stimulus efforts of DOE and ARPA-E. Energy officials have placed even more stringent terms on loans disbursed under its Advanced Technology Vehicle Manufacturing program, assistance that was already restricted to “financially viable” companies and, hence, inaccessible to Chrysler and GM. As a result, many alternative energy startups are shutting down.
But big companies are also having trouble introducing sustainable energy/power systems, for reasons that go beyond innovation policy per se. Chevrolet recently idled production of the Volt hybrid for five weeks due to low demand. This speaks to the broader problem with the Obama administration’s stimulus effort. The Recovery Act kept many Americans working in the worst days of the recession, but it didn’t provide a basis for future growth. Federal money for R&D will continue to find its way to researchers. But with austerity being the new watchword on Capitol Hill, it will be increasingly difficult for ARPA-E’s fledgling entrepreneurs to find partners when they are nudged from the nest.
Markets, myths, and change we can believe in
What the summit made clear was that, for all its perceived political efficacy, AOTA cannot “change the game” in the energy sector. Various groups will interpret the dynamics of the energy economy through the lenses of their own interests and are not likely to agree on the best way of renovating the current energy regime or even on how it actually functions.
Energy independence is a case in point. It is a favorite cause for energy technologists, executives, and politicians who, under disparate rallying cries, frame the issue in terms of national security when mobilizing support. But it is many years since the United States has been beholden to politically unreliable sources of energy. It is true that the country has grown more dependent on energy imports of all kinds, which comprised 19 percent of total consumption in 1973 and about 30 percent in 2010. But non-OPEC countries provide most U.S. petroleum imports (around 58 percent in 2010) and the largest suppliers are staunch allies Mexico and Canada (10 and 20 percent respectively). Of OPEC suppliers, only one (Venezuela) is currently considered potentially hostile, and it provided only about 8 percent of U.S. imports. Our frequent rival Iran, of course, has long been shut out of the U.S. energy economy.
No country has shown an inclination to use energy to blackmail the U.S. since 1973. Political conditions have changed drastically since the Arab oil embargo, and in today’s market there are too many suppliers eager to sell for such a strategy to be feasible even in principle. For these reasons, energy independence and the protectionism it implies is a political nonstarter. Although America has an energy deficit, energy of all sorts, especially refined fuel, has become an increasingly valuable export as demand has dropped at home. According to the Energy Information Agency, the United States exported nearly $128 billion of energy in 2011; indeed, the country exported slightly more energy than it produced from renewable sources in 2010 and was on track to do the same in 2011. Despite some rather wishful thinking to the contrary, free trade will trump energy independence in the existing policy landscape.
Are there ways ARPA-E can make a difference? Deputy Defense Secretary Ashton Carter argued that with its huge demand, the military could serve as an early market for new energy technologies, fulfilling the same procurement role for ARPA-E that it does for DARPA. The armed forces have a long history of experimenting with advanced power and energy systems, including batteries, photovoltaic arrays, fuel cells, and nuclear reactors. The Navy is currently sponsoring an experiment with Solazyme, a company that has sold the government pilot-scale batches of algae-based biofuel, including 1.7 million liters (450,000 gallons) to be blended into aviation fuel for the RIMPAC naval exercise this summer.
The catch is that this fuel costs $6.86 per liter ($26 per gallon). Military markets may provide a lucrative niche for some companies, but the armed forces have traditionally put performance over efficiency in their energy supply and conversion systems. So it is unlikely that this sector can serve as a pivot for a civilian spinoff in the short term.
It was left to former President Clinton to articulate the limitations and contradictions in American energy policy and energy R&D policy. In the discursive style of the former president (which here could be defined as “convenient inconvenient truths”), he distanced himself from AOTA without quite saying as much, claiming he supported it if it enabled growth with declining greenhouse gas emissions—which, of course, it does not. Much of Clinton’s pitch seemed eminently reasonable. He urged summiteers to “pick low-hanging fruit” to give time for advanced technology projects to come to market. He proposed a public/private infrastructure bank that would finance projects he claimed could be profitable, create jobs, and cut emissions, especially in energy efficiency. He lauded the governments of Germany, Sweden, and Denmark for pursuing equitable and sustainable energy development.
Probably any post-presidential address by Clinton is fated to sound like a stump speech, and he was not above invoking the Senate’s unanimous rejection of the Kyoto Protocol in 1997 as a Cassandra “aha” moment for his administration. That his address was the only one to generate a standing ovation at the ARPA-E Energy Summit 2012 indicated an appetite for greater government involvement in sustainable energy than the current administration is offering. And yet as president, Clinton pioneered the very quick-fix model of collaborative, cost-shared R&D adopted by the Obama White House—one that he now distanced himself from. It does not bode well for serious reconsideration of energy policy that so many were willing to forgive or forget the inconclusive legacy of a slew of Clinton projects, including the Partnership for a New Generation of Vehicles, the Climate Change Technology Initiative, and even the National Nanotechnology Initiative. Also seemingly easily forgotten was that the 1997 Senate action was in part a response to the Clinton administration’s inability or unwillingness to design a coherent industrial strategy capable of executing the Kyoto Agreement.
In its energy and economic policies, the Obama administration has mirrored the Clinton administration in almost every way. Both inherited financial, industrial, and foreign policy crises and had strong but evanescent political mandates that could have allowed them to entrench the basis of an alternative energy regime through national energy programs. Both instead chose the tactical political considerations of “compromise.”
Of course, AOTA is a misnomer. Connoting a sort of affirmative action, it does not privilege all energy sectors equally, but, rather is a near-zero-sum equation favoring the fossil-fuel status quo. The Obama administration’s inability to coordinate alternative energy policy with alternative economic and environmental policies means its twin imperatives of job creation and cheap, clean energy are mutually exclusive. Belated policy tweaks have done little to resolve this contradiction. Recognizing that foreign-made photovoltaic panels hurt domestic manufacturers but help domestic energy users, the Department of Commerce recently levied a small tariff on Chinese imports, one that probably won’t have much practical effect beyond the symbolism of standing up to “dumping” or “illegal subsidies,” charges surely of the-pot-calling-the-kettle-black variety. Cheap alternative energy is being realized, but value is being added in the “wrong” country.
In appearing to try to please everyone, President Obama has pleased no one, furnishing ammunition that even the dimmest lights in the opposition firmament can readily exploit. Newt “Moon Unit” Gingrich had fine sport deriding algae-based fuels, cherry-picking from AOTA to be sure. But the fact is that renewable energy production has grown very slowly under the president’s stewardship. Given that cheap, clean gasoline substitutes are unavailable on a wide scale, President Obama surely did not impress any but his most ardent supporters with his charge that Republican critics of alternative energy were “founding members of the flat earth society.” More than any single event, the gasoline situation lends validity to criticism that the White House’s alternative energy program is a sham. And the snail’s pace of the administration’s high-speed rail program hasn’t benefitted commuters in the interim.
Conservatives take President Obama’s rhetoric at face value. Progressives see the president as disingenuous. No doubt White House planners regard delaying the trans-border section of the Keystone XL pipeline and approving the Gulf of Mexico portion as a stroke of savvy realpolitik, but one has to wonder whether Democratic-leaning voters really are as gullible as this scheme implies. And as for the president’s claims that gasoline prices are determined by forces beyond the government’s control (speculation and unrest in the Middle East), it is probably not beyond the capacity of even the mildly educated to understand that the administration has shown little appetite to reregulate Wall Street and has done its part to inflate the fear premium through confrontational policies in the Persian Gulf. Committed both to alternative energy (but not in a rational, comprehensive way) and cheap fossil fuels (but not in ways benefiting American motorists in an election year), President Obama has accrued no political capital from his energy policy from either the left or the right by the end of his first term.
The president long ago lost the legislative capacity for bold action in practically every field, including energy, but because the GOP’s slate of presidential candidates is so extraordinarily weak in 2012, he may not need it to get re-elected. At least, that is the conventional wisdom in Democratic circles. Should President Obama win a second term, Congress is likely to be even more hostile than in his first term, as in the Clinton years. And as in the Clinton years, that will probably mean four more years of inaction and increased resort to cant.
Wise policies benefitting the alternative energy industry-in-waiting and society at large, consequently, are less likely to devolve from the normal (stalemated) two-party policymaking mechanism than from abnormal (or, rather, periodic) events of the kind (economic collapse) that brought ARPA-E into being in the first place. History shows that national emergency is really the only political bonding agent in American society. As we lurch from crisis to crisis, we can only hope that when the next reckoning comes—with Mother Nature, the economic system, or both—we will be left with the agency and faculties to achieve some balance in human affairs on this planet.
Matthew N. Eisler is a Research Fellow at the Center for Contemporary History and Policy at the Chemical Heritage Foundation.
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