Shaping the future of energy in a government agency

Drawing from DARPA’s blueprint, ARPA-E was created in 2007 as part of the Department of Energy to drive similar innovations in energy. Since then, more than $3 billion in funding has been awarded to more than 1,400 advanced energy research projects, and has helped bring new technologies to market. US Energy Secretary Jennifer Granholm called the government’s power plant a “moon factory.”

ARPA-E swore in its new director, Evelyn Wang, in January. Wang is taking a leave of absence as head of the mechanical engineering department at MIT to lead the agency. We sat down to talk about what’s next for energy technology, what challenges lie ahead, and how to measure progress through early-stage research. Here are a few excerpts from our conversation, edited for clarity and length.

What do you see as ARPA-E’s role in advancing energy technology today, and how does it relate to the broader Department of Energy?

Energy technologies sometimes take a decade or more to be deployed in a meaningful and impactful way. I think the rest of the Department of Energy has a road map of what they’re going to focus on, and they’re going to focus on the recent winners.

We’re really focused on high-risk, high-reward, renewable energy technologies, and I think we’re very broad in terms of taking something from the basics to implementing a prototype that can be commercialized. in the future.

And so I think there are additional aspects, but we often diverge because we’re working on these very risky and long-term technological innovations. That’s where ARPA-E is so powerful, because we’re actually taking things that we don’t know work or not, but that could change the energy landscape. And that’s what I think a lot of other agencies don’t go through.

What are some potential areas ripe for energy innovation?

In the near future, we are thinking a lot about how to improve semiconductor materials, for example, to create a more efficient grid. And we want to think about how we’re going to do our grid—taking cables underground is a very important part of our recent efforts.

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