The Federal Energy Revolution - New Directions in R&D



It was quite amazing, sitting in the audience at ARPA-E’s event in Washington early this spring while the likes of Fred Smith, CEO of FedEx, talked about the importance of government research to put muscle behind efforts to develop disruptive energy technologies in America.

Bill Gates was there to, trying to get everyone to look past the sorry Solyndra tale of miscued federal loan efforts. He said we must understand that R&D failure is a signpost on the road to success. “This is a complex set of technologies,” Gates said of energy. “We need thousands of companies to be trying this to get the 10-20 companies that will have real solutions.”

January means new beginnings. That is certainly true at the start of a presidential administration or the second term of a re-elected president – like Barack Obama.

For many years, energy utilities have been criticized as being way too stingy when it comes to backing research and development of new technologies. In part, utilities have been all about building infrastructure that is every expensive and very reliable, for a regulatory-determined safe profit.

The federal government has stepped into the breach. A group of visionary scientists have been working on pioneering energy research at the National Renewable Energy Laboratory on the eastern fringe of the Rockies in Golden, Colo. ever since the Carter administration.

In the teeth of the recent nasty recession, the government launched ARPA-E, to back research into promising new areas, such as energy storage.

Where are NREL and ARPA-E headed?

To answer that question, I will be moderating a discussion on Thursday, Dec. 20, at noon ET, with Dan Arvizu, the director of NREL, Cheryl Martin, ARPA-E’s deputy director of commercialization - and future director - and Sen. Byron Dorgan, former chairman of the Senate subcommittee on energy and water development.

Arvizu and Martin will talk about what their teams have been doing – and what they would like to be tackling in coming years.

Dorgan will help explore where the federal support for these efforts will come from in an era of tight federal budgets.

Listen in to our conversation this Thursday [register here]. And join us for a deeper exploration of Big Shifts in National Energy Policy at the EnergyBiz Leadership Forum in Washington, March 18-19 at The National Press Club [information here].



From the late 1970s until the late 1990s the industry had been making significant valuable investments in R&D through the Electric Power Research Institute and continues to a lesser extent to this day. At one point the industry, supported by state regulators who allowed recovery in rate cases, invested nearly $600 million per year. We spend less that the pet food industry on R&D.

Today it is at half that amount driven down by the headlong rush into "competition", bad advice from general consultants from other industries who falsely believed that the "free" market would make the investments necessary and electric utilities mistakenly guarded their intellectual property. EPRI created, and continues to create, some extraordinary R&D that is actually used today--products like the Maytag Neptune Washer which revolutionized washing, 8 CFC replacements that are friendly to the environment, FACTS devices to help redirect power in transmission system and hundreds of other useful and fundamental improvements to our industry.

We should be looking to the government to join with the industry in jointing supporting R&D that can be used and useful on both a national and state level. We need to restore a model in which technology actually moves into the market. Unlike other industries which can handle the failure of R&D experiments the resources we provide are far too critical to be left to the ups and downs of poorly funded ventures.

Mark Gabriel
Power Pundits LLC
Author, Visions for a Sustainable Energy Future
Former Acting President EPRI Traditional
Mark Gabriel

We in India are watching with great interest what road the R and D is taking in the US. We have one of the largest population in the world of Electrical and Mechanical engineers and despite the recent alliance of USAID / FICCI and DST etc and many other efforts nothing substantial is happening here. It is to the credit of Indians that worlds first smart metering project was formulated in India as a response to very high energy theft.That it was not exactly Indian per se is altogether another matter. Some petty thinking killed a major part of it because the theme now was to build local and not import from outside.My team had members from US and South Africa and even from Finland co.The matter of the fact is that no country today can do justice to Rand D in Power engineering alone
becuse the things are incredibly complex and US should guard against localised thinking and look for international collaboration on advanced powetr system technologies related to smart grid etc especially from Continent and even from India.bnergy issues are too important to be treated with a petty mind and the entire future of mankind is based on it.US is always in a position to provide leadership on this
Alok Misra

A mere forty years ago, beach volleyball was just beginning. No bureaucrat would have invented it, and that's what freedom is all about.

New Gingrich said that one.

The point is, no innovation ever comes from government subsidies.

Where did four years of "shovel-ready jobs" get us? Waste. Deeper in debt. We still have a crappy economy.

What return do we have for previous government investment in energy transmission R&D?
Scott Thorsen

ARPA-E has only operated since 2009's Recovery Act, and the work funded since then has fundamentally changed the world.

It will take a while, but ARPA-E's first three years will eventually be recognized as a time of stunningly disruptive and transformational research and development.
James Cassidy

Normally I don't learn post on blogs, but I would like to say that this write-up very pressured me to try and do it! Your writing style has been surprised me. Thanks, very nice post.
Ted Molla

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