Transform America?s Approach to Energy R&D
29 Sep, 2008 01:18 pm
The U.S. federal government should fully fund ARPA-E, its transformative energy R&D organization.
The inconsistency over ARPA-E funding should matter to more than just energy policy analysts, scientists, engineers, and economists. ARPA-E was created specifically to alleviate many of the shortcomings, including loss of mission, bureaucracy, poor coordination, and lack of innovation, inherent within the DOE’s approach to energy R&D. Various layers of stove-piping within and between the DOE and the national laboratories fractured collaboration and engendered only slow, incremental progress on energy problems. The DOE and national laboratories were not designed to pursue transformational R&D projects, and program mangers and policymakers often lacked the personal, organizational and political will bring them forward.
ARPA-E, in contrast, focuses exclusively on transformative R&D. Incremental R&D, the type that predominates at the DOE, focuses on refining existing technology, fits neatly into established programs and offices, and tends to produce change at the process and material level, rather than the systems level. In contrast, transformational R&D focuses on looking beyond today’s needs and requirements, challenges conventional program structure, and produces change at the systems level.
Instead of focusing on particular technologies or programs, ARPA-E focuses on technology challenges, and it possesses a research culture contrary to the traditional, hierarchical system at place at the DOE and national laboratories. And, rather than rely on mammoth programs with hundreds of staff, small groups of program managers exercise extensive power in directing high risk technological projects. ARPA-E’s flat management structure and quick staff turnover help prevent entrenched incrementalism.
DARPA, established by President Eisenhower in 1958 to supercharge American R&D on space technologies, demonstrates the effectiveness of this sort of organizational structure. Instead of wedding researchers and managers to specific technologies, DARPA emphasizes achieving a single mission: to sponsor revolutionary, high-risk research that bridges the gap between scientific discovery and military use. Since its inception, DARPA has helped develop better command and control systems for nuclear missiles, improved semiconductor manufacturing techniques, laid the groundwork for the internet by devising massive parallel computer processing, built two radar evading “Stealth” aircraft (the F-117 and the B-2), and invented phased array radars, night-vision goggles, and key parts of unmanned aerial vehicles and global positioning satellites.
We need the same sort of innovation in our energy sector. Rising demand for transportation fuels, most of which comes from foreign sources; an impending peak in the production of oil and perhaps other conventional fuels; increasing volatility of energy markets; greater demand for electricity even as electric transmission and distribution grids are already at their technical limits; and rapidly mounting environmental costs of energy production and consumption all demand a robust and sustained strategy to advance cleaner and more efficient energy technologies.
Despite these challenges, transformational R&D only occurs by circumstance instead of design within the conventional DOE system. The diffuse and growing challenges facing the American energy sector demand a fundamental rethinking and radical redesign of the processes the country utilizes to produce energy technologies. It makes little sense to recognize the importance of transformational R&D by creating ARPA-E only not to fund it.
For further reading:
National Academy of Sciences, Rising Above the Storm: Energizing and Employing America for a Brighter Economic Future (Washington, DC: National Academies Press, 2006). Available at http://www.nap.edu/catalog.php?record_id=11463
Deborah D. Stine, Advanced Research Projects Agency-Energy (ARPA-E): Background, Status, and Selected Issues for Congress (Washington, DC: Congressional Research Report for Congress RL34497, August 12, 2008), 13pp. Available at http://fas.org/sgp/crs/misc/RL34497.pdf.
Benjamin K. Sovacool, “Replacing Replacing Tedium with Transformation: Why the U.S. Department of Energy Needs to Change the Way it Conducts Long-term R&D,” Energy Policy 36(3) (March, 2008), pp. 923-928. Available at http://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/B6V2W-4RDBF9S-1/1/c292c6bbec32f2d99ace3bb1c9ae0bd6.