Energy Policy

ARPA-E's Williams discusses role of innovative technologies in meeting Paris pledge

With technology innovation receiving a boost in President Obama's fiscal 2017 budget, what is the future of innovation as part of the United States' climate strategy? During today's OnPoint, Ellen Williams, director of the Department of Energy's Advanced Research Projects Agency-Energy (ARPA-E), discusses the role innovative technology solutions will play in the United States' energy and climate future. She previews next week's ARPA-E Energy Innovation Summit and talks about several technologies that will be on display at the conference.


Monica Trauzzi: Hello, and welcome to On Point. I'm Monica Trauzzi. With me today is Ellen Williams, director of the Department of Energy's Advanced Research Projects-Agency, better known as ARPA. Ellen, thank you for joining me.

Ellen Williams: It's a pleasure to be here.

Monica Trauzzi: Ellen, in the president's fiscal year 2017 budget, ARPA-E saw an increase in funding from 2016. Given where innovation fell in the budget and coming out of the Paris negotiations, how critical will technology be in the U.S.'s ability to meet its Paris pledge?

Ellen Williams: Technology is really a key enabler for all sorts of advances in the energy sector. So we really have the opportunity to change a paradigm. We can do a lot of things that are clean, low power, very efficient, but we also need to make sure that they're economically viable. We've got the upcoming technical innovations that we can see coming down the road that are really going to make it possible for us to do this and do it in a way that makes our economy even stronger.

Monica Trauzzi: With the future of the Clean Power Plan now in limbo, what do you envision for ARPA-E's direction and future during this really incredibly dynamic moment for climate and energy policy?

Ellen Williams: ARPA-E is a technology organization. We have faith that developing strong technologies that can change the pathways forward is always going to be important. So we're in the business of putting in place the options that policymakers are going to need for the future.

Monica Trauzzi: So you have your annual innovation summit taking place next week here in Washington.

Ellen Williams: That's right.

Monica Trauzzi: At the summit you'll showcase recent ARPA-E awardees. What are you hoping this year's summit will demonstrate about the program's work in creating these innovative technologies?

Ellen Williams: Well, this is our seventh summit so we've been funding technologies, innovative technologies for six full years of funding now and we are really seeing a whole portfolio of different levels of technology. We're seeing the promise of some of our earlier projects that we funded that are now alumni projects coming to maturity and going out into the commercial sector. We're seeing innovative, cutting-edge technologies coming out of basic research and development and demonstrating their potential for having an impact on future energy technologies and we're continuing our dynamic portfolio process where we're constantly turning over and investigating new types of innovation. So we'll be seeing some of those new technologies that we're starting to invest in at the showcase as well.

Monica Trauzzi: So there are some very interesting and unique technologies that you'll be showcasing and that are being funded. One of your favorite projects is Stanford's radiative cooling initiative. Why is that so exciting for you?

Ellen Williams: Stanford radiative cooling is one of the projects that really came out of basic science in a stunning way to demonstrate that it can have an application. So the idea with radiative cooling is very nonintuitive. The idea is I've got a material. I can place it in full sun and it will get cooler just all by itself. No power source. No wires hooked up to it. Just put it in the sun and it gets cooler. That's the concept of the project. The way it works is that you have to design a special coating for your material. It reflects all the sunlight, but of course there's other forms of light than the light that we can see. There's also infrared light and that's what carries the heat. So you make it reflect all the visible sunlight, but you let it emit heat. So it can sit in the sunlight not picking up heat from the sun, but picking up heat from whatever is below it and it will emit that heat and cool off. They demonstrated that they can do this, but more importantly they demonstrated they could do this with a manufacturable technology that has the potential to scale up and have impact commercially.

Monica Trauzzi: Talk a bit about ARPA-E's TERRA program and what that's going to do for advanced biofuels.

Ellen Williams: TERRA is one of our new projects. It's an example of the continuing development of new innovations. So in TERRA we're looking at high throughput plant breeding basically. We want to develop new biofuels crops that are more sustainable, higher yield, allow us to have biofuels without negative impacts on the environment, but breeding new plant type is very slow and very expensive. So what we're looking at with TERRA is bringing together the power of robotics and remote sensing, the power of high data analytics and big computation and the power of what we now understand in terms of the genome and understanding genetic modeling. So pulling those all together, having basically robots wandering around the fields looking at the plants all the time while they're growing is going to allow us to greatly accelerate how fast we can develop more sustainable new crops.

Monica Trauzzi: That's still in the beginning stages.

Ellen Williams: It's in the very beginning stages. We're going to have at the summit a couple of our teams are going to come with their beginnings of their robots that go in the field and we're going to have some robot demonstrations.

Monica Trauzzi: So Raytheon has successfully demonstrated an energy storage project that was funded by ARPA-E. How is that project currently having a real-world impact?

Ellen Williams: So the Raytheon project is a demonstration at the Mira Mar Air Force Station. They have a micro-grid where they have their own solar energy. They want to be able to go off grid. They'd isolate themselves from the electric power grid. So they need battery storage to do that. So one of our very early projects Primus Power was developing big batteries for storing electrical power for the grid. They developed some amazing new innovations. The key in grid storage is it has to be inexpensive. It has to be able to handle a lot of power; move the energy in and out quickly. Primus looked at new types of electrodes, drove down their costs, looked at new battery designs, developed high power and they pull together a system that is actually working, demonstrating and with Mira Mar and Raytheon, they're now putting that in a demonstration phase that's already beginning to show how powerful this can be for letting them use their solar power, but store it for the times when the sun's not shining.

Monica Trauzzi: It's fascinating stuff. We'll end it there. Thank you so much for your time and for coming on the show. I appreciate it.

Ellen Williams: Thank you very much. It's a real pleasure to talk with you.

Monica Trauzzi: Thanks for watching. We'll see you back here tomorrow.

[End of Audio]



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