Clean Energy Research Summit Has a Shortage of Green …

Eli is a contributing correspondent for Science magazine.

… and the dearth of funding for the rest of 2011 threatens to cripple the Advanced Research Projects Agency-Energy's massive program. But it's been rare for any session at this week's second annual ARPA-E summit to mention that elephant in the room: The challenge of convincing Congress to back the young agency, which is living off $15 million it received in 2009 after having committed some $400 million in stimulus funding. Without more money, the program will have to start cutting staff members or other expenses this summer.

While most summit talks have focused on exciting opportunities in everything from solar cells and distributed power generation to highly efficient power electronics, attendees aware of the political challenges facing the fledgling agency are jittery. "How is the political torch being carried? Who is shepherding the program?" asked Robert Ryan, owner of an advanced materials company called Twining Laboratories in Long Beach, California. He believes ARPA-E's biggest threat is the "growing sentiment" in the country to cut government spending.

That sentiment reached the floor of the House of Representatives on 16 February when legislators debated a motion to eliminate $50 million for ARPA-E from a bill to set government-wide spending levels for the rest of the year. But the proposal, from Representative Judy Biggert (R-IL), was defeated, 262 to 170. "I think you're going to find similar support for ARPA-E in the Senate," Senator Lisa Murkowski (R-AK) told attendees this morning. But that support isn't open-ended, she warned.

"The hard truth is that every program must live within its means." She spoke dismissively of the White House's request for $550 million for ARPA-E in 2012, noting that Congress had authorized only $306 million for the agency in last year's reauthorization of the America COMPETES Act. Even that amount is rather generous, she implied. "Many programs are never funded at their authorized levels, let alone higher," she said.

Even $50 million for the rest of the fiscal year would put a squeeze on the agency. ARPA-E might stay alive, but it would be a shell of the juggernaut that attracted 2000 people to this swanky conference center.

The program has spent nearly all of the $400 million it has been granted, funding 10 to 15 projects in six program areas at $30 million to $40 million each. While it does award a few much smaller grants, officials hope that they don't have to start making smaller awards to spread the money further. That step, ARPA-E Director Arun Majumdar said today, would constitute a "dilution that does not serve the purpose" of the agency's goals.

Each of the six program areas was established with a workshop that preceded a solicitation for research proposals. ARPA-E also has held five workshops in other areas: biofuels, thermoelectric batteries, grid storage, critical materials, and power electronics for solar energy. With the budget picture cloudy, however, it has yet to release solicitations in any of these areas. One agency official put it to ScienceInsider this way: "$50 million means one program."

Could ARPA-E work as a more compact, targeted effort? "If this was a small, $20-million-per-year program, Arun and I, we wouldn't be here. No interest," says deputy director Eric Toone, a Duke University chemist on leave to work at the agency. Losing senior staff—managers make the final calls on starting awards as well as killing funding later, if need be—would be a heavy blow to the young agency.

One ARPA-E program manager who plans to stick around while Congress debates his team's future says he's too busy to be anxious. "While we'd like to keep growing the pipeline, I've got $50 million worth of projects I'm managing," says ARPA-E program manager Mark Hartney. For now, he says, it's about "waiting for the deposit into our bank account."

But that hope is not much comfort to engineer Adam Simpson with Menlo Park, California-based startup ETAGen. He said that a workshop on distributed electricity generation —which would presumably precede an announcement of a funding opportunity in a new area like that—had been planned for last month but then postponed due to the budget uncertainty. It's hard to make plans while in limbo, he says. "Now that it's [planned for] April, we're thinking about when we raise our next round of funding," he says.

ARPA-E aide Shane Kosinski is optimistic that lawmakers have heard the agency's message. "We're efficient, we're not bureaucratic, we're good stewards of the taxpayer dollar," he says.

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