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ARPA-E’s new focus: Bridging the valleys of death for cleantech R&D

The nation's top energy research agency wants to scale up “high-risk and potentially disruptive” tech to meet urgent decarbonization goals.

Jeff St. John
Jeff St. John
5 min read
ARPA-E’s new focus: Bridging the valleys of death for cleantech R&D

Over the past 14 years, ARPA-E has helped bring a host of experimental energy technologies closer to commercial application, from new battery chemistries and power electronics designs, to software to manage the interplay of renewable energy with power grids.

Now, with the Biden administration pushing a multitrillion-dollar nationwide clean energy and decarbonization effort, the Energy Department’s premiere research and development program is putting a greater emphasis on bringing emerging clean technologies to commercial scale — as well as on finding private-sector partners to help.

“We cannot be working on clean energy in silos,” Energy Secretary Jennifer Granholm said during the first day of last week’s four-day ARPA-E Summit. “We have to join with our partners across the federal government, in our communities, around the world, and throughout the private sector. Only with our collective resources can we reach these goals at the speed that we need.”

As of May 2021, ARPA-E has brought about $2.8 billion in federal funding to nearly 1,200 projects, up from $1.3 billion for about 500 projects as of 2016. That funding has led to the founding of 92 companies, driven $5.4 billion in private-sector funding (up from $1.25 billion in 2016), and allowed 14 of its recipients to achieve exits through initial public offerings or acquisitions worth a collective $3.9 billion.

But Granholm pointed out that the next decade could open up a $23 trillion market opportunity for carbon-reducing technologies across the world, “which for the private sector has got to be very interesting.”

That interest was reflected by the private-sector presence during last week’s event. The first day’s program features interviews between Granholm and Lisa Jackson, the former EPA director under the Obama administration who now leads Apple’s environmental policy and social initiatives, and Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg and Kara Hurst, vice president and head of worldwide sustainability at Amazon. Later days featured venture investors including utility-backed Energy Impact Partners and early-stage-startup backers Greentown Labs, Elemental Excelerator and Third Derivative.

In an interview with Fatih Birol, head of the International Energy Agency, Bill Gates, the Microsoft co-founder who’s directed his vast wealth into clean energy investments through the Breakthrough Energy network of initiatives, said that “there’s no doubt government plays a key role, both in terms of funding basic R&D [and] funding challenges to achieve certain technical goals.”

But government must also “fund projects to get technologies up to scale and to create a demand for green products, even when they sell at a higher price, the so-called 'green premium,'” Gates said. “How can we get started on green steel and green cement unless we have some resources, including from government, so we can start to create demand and start scaling up, so that we can get on that learning curve?”

ARPA-E’s Scaleup program: Bringing cleantech to the next level

That’s the goal of ARPA-E’s “Seeding Critical Advances for Leading Energy technologies with Untapped Potential,” or Scaleup, program. Over the past nine months, Scaleup has awarded $70 million to 10 previous ARPA-E-award-winning companies with “high-risk and potentially disruptive new technologies across the full spectrum of energy applications.”

Four of the Scaleup winners are involved in battery innovation, including 24M Technologies, Sila Nanotechnologies, Ionic Materials and Natron Energy. Another awardee, Cambridge Electronics, is developing gallium arsenide semiconductors for multiple power electronics applications. Two others, Switched Source and AutoGrid, have technologies geared to integrate distributed energy resources into the grid.

Another two Scaleup awardees, Bridger Photonics and LongPath Technologies, are focused on methane detection systems to help identify and reduce leakage of the potent greenhouse gas. The final Scaleup award winner, SkyCool Systems, is developing radiative cooling panels that could greatly increase efficiency of air conditioning and refrigeration systems whose energy use is both a driver of and a response to global warming.

Jigar Shah, the co-founder of Generate and founder of SunEdison, now leads the DOE Loan Programs Office that has about $40 billion in funding for projects in need of the “green premium” support that Gates described. In a Thursday interview at the ARPA-E summit, Shah asked representatives of four Scaleup award-winning companies how the program could help them develop to a point to position them for the loan program's larger-scale support.

Colin Wessells, CEO and co-founder of Natron Energy, said the $19.9 million his company received will allow it to replicate its first assembly line for its sodium-ion battery cells as a “building block we’d copy...into a gigafactory” with up to 20 production lines, hopefully within the next 18 months.

“We’re at a scale now that we can run a pilot plant successfully,” he said. “If you can fully validate that — uptime, throughput, quality, resulting unit economics… that business model has been validated to the point where we can justify that additional equity” or loans from private-sector backers.

This kind of bridging finance is vital for new batteries seeking to prove they can compete on price and performance against the mass-market lithium-ion batteries being churned out at gigawatt scales from manufacturers such as LG Chem and Panasonic.

It’s even more important for companies that are building technologies that are, in a sense, creating a new market, said Greg Rieker, LongPath CTO and co-founder. In his company’s case, pilot projects supported by its original ARPA-E funding indicate its continuous monitoring technology can yield far greater methane leakage reductions than the periodic inspections oil and gas companies now use, which can allow large leaks to persist for months before they’re discovered.

“It might cost a little bit more, but where you save is in finding and fixing your leaks,” he said. The Scaleup funding will “allow us to get out there in a wide area with wide coverage and prove all these points.”

Granholm mentioned several aspects of the Biden administration’s $2.3 trillion jobs and infrastructure plan now being debated in Congress that are supported by ARPA-E-backed research. The administration’s proposed $100 billion in transmission grid investment, for example, could be boosted by technologies being developed by ARPA-E grant winners such as New Grid and Smart Wires.

Likewise, its proposed $174 billion investment in electric vehicle manufacturing capacity and charging infrastructure deployment, “to build vehicles and the batteries that power them and renovating homes and modernizing factories,” could be supported by the battery, electric drivetrain and charging technology advances that were an early focus of ARPA-E funding.

Other ARPA-E focus areas are applicable to multiple sectors, said Jennifer Gerbi, ARPA-E’s deputy director for technology. Advances in semiconductors and power electronics have boosted electric vehicle drivetrains and fast-charging systems, advanced inverters for solar and wind power, and digital control systems to manage intermittent power flows on the grid, she said.

“They have sort of catalyzed the field. They have made new things possible that other people build on,” she said.

Despite multiple attempts by the Trump administration to slash its funding, Congress continued to direct $300 million to $425 million per year to ARPA-E over the past four years. The omnibus spending bill passed by Congress in December increases the program’s annual budget to a total of nearly $2.9 billion through 2025.

Not all of the projects receiving ARPA-E funding have succeeded. A handful, such as solar Stirling engine developer Infinia, have gone bankrupt, while others have struggled to move from lab tests to field deployments.

“To create true disruptive change, you have to take a lot of shots on goal,” Gerbi said. “You have to be comfortable with the fact that many won't get there. You also have to be comfortable with the amount of time it takes until this disruptiveness is apparent.”

(Article image courtesy of Science in HD)

ARPA-Eclean energyBiden administrationJennifer GranholmDOEelectric vehiclesEnergy Storagevalley of death

Jeff St. John

Jeff St. John covers technology, economic and regulatory issues influencing the global transition to low-carbon energy. He is former managing editor and senior grid edge editor of Greentech Media.