Will ARPA-E Serve as the Catalyst to Meet the Final 10 Percent of Carbon Neutrality?
Updated: Sep 10, 2021
Nearly a month into the Biden administration, we have seen early strides toward fulfilling campaign promises in climate and clean energy. On his Inaugural afternoon, President Biden recommitted the United States to the Paris agreement, which will enter into force on February 19 th . The President additionally ordered federal agencies to begin review and reinstatement of more than 100 environmental regulations rolled back by President Trump, and rescinded permitting for the Keystone XL pipeline.
But there is much work to be done in the coming months and years. President Biden has set ambitious targets for carbon neutrality in the electric power sector by 2035, and economy-wide decarbonization by 2050. The administration's proposed investment in clean energy and environmental justice will total nearly $2 trillion over the next ten years, building off of rolled-back Trump-era corporate tax incentives and other sources of funding.
The Administration's stated plan includes aggressive executive action, including but not limited to:
- Implementing more efficient, climate-ready technologies and new innovation into U.S.
- Bolstering the Clean Air Act to reduce greenhouse gas emissions from transportation;
- Setting aggressive limits on methane pollution from oil and gas industries; and,
- Requiring climate and greenhouse gas considerations in federal permitting decisions
In a previous article, we covered defining "carbon neutrality" and considered what paths we may take to reach Biden's 2035 and 2050 targets. On a basic level, achieving economy-wide carbon neutrality means that the economy will function in a way that produces zero carbon dioxide. This will be achieved either through offsets, investments in renewable energy, energy efficiency measures, and other low carbon innovation, or some combination of the two. The report from University of California at Berkeley—2035 Report: Plummeting Solar, Wind, and Battery Costs Can Accelerate Our Clean Energy Future—illustrates that the U.S. can deliver 90 percent of clean, carbon-free electricity without implementing new fossil plants. But there still stands the matter of reaching 100 percent, and as we noted before, no one technology will meet all of our energy needs. New, still unknown technologies are the plausible missing
variable to meet that final 10 percent.
The U.S. Department of Energy (DOE)'s Advanced Research Projects Agency-Energy (ARPA-E) may help fill in the gap. ARPA-E invests in and advances growth in energy technologies that are too early for private-sector investment, but have high potential to disrupt current thinking and transform America's energy systems. ARPA-E focuses particularly on tech that may shift how we use, generate, and store energy, and will improve US economic prosperity, national security, and environmental wellbeing.
Earlier this month, DOE offered up to $100 million as part of ARPA-E's OPEN 2021 funding opportunity announcement (FOA). This is the fifth ARPA-E FOA, with past projects achieving breakthroughs in solar, geothermal, batteries, biofuels, and advanced surface coating tech. This particular OPEN solicitation will provide 30 to 50 awards (from $250,000 to $10 million each) targeting potential projects that work at the scale of the climate crisis. The funding will support high-risk R&D that may yield technologies with
great impact on energy generation, transmission, storage, distribution, efficiency, emissions, and the transportation sector.
When evaluating potential research programs, Agency officials must consider baseline objectives of the proposed project with respect to the function and limitations of current programming and technology. What is new about the projects approach, how much risk, cost, and time will it require, and why might it be successful? Are the potential pitfalls worth the prospective reward? These particular questions come from long time evaluation of projects of DARPA.
The Biden administration's carbon neutrality targets are ambitious, and the path to achievement is risky. But without such scope of ambition, we risk falling behind in the race against climate-induced impacts. Meeting Biden's goals necessitates supporting innovation in technologies that are just as bold and disruptive as the targets themselves. ARPA-E's OPEN FOA may be just the program for the job, providing
a platform for vital, but yet unknown project pathways in clean energy technology.