Ambitious R&D and Climate Actions

It should not come as a surprise that jobs and climate are two of President Biden’s top priorities which both are addressed with the launch of “American Innovation effort to create jobs and tackle the climate crisis”. In this, an outline of...

It should not come as a surprise that jobs and climate are two of President Biden’s top priorities which both are addressed with the launch of “American Innovation effort to create jobs and tackle the climate crisis”. In this, an outline of the administration’s innovation agenda is presented, a Climate Innovation Workgroup is established, along with announcement of $100 million in transformational climate innovation research. Together these initiatives will be vital in reaching the President’s goal of net-zero economy wide emissions by 2050.

The climate innovation agenda lists several prioritized areas:

  • Zero net carbon buildings at zero net cost, including carbon-neutral construction materials
  • energy storage at one-tenth the cost of today’s alternatives
  • advanced energy system management tools to plan for and operate a grid powered by zero carbon power plants
  • very low-cost zero carbon on-road vehicles and transit systems
  • new, sustainable fuels for aircraft and ships, as well as improvements in broader aircraft and ship efficiency and transportation management
  • affordable refrigeration, air conditioning, and heat pumps made without refrigerants that warm the planet
  • carbon-free heat and industrial processes that capture emissions for making steel, concrete, chemicals, and other important industrial products
  • carbon-free hydrogen at a lower cost than hydrogen made from polluting alternatives
  • innovative soil management, plant biologies, and agricultural techniques to remove carbon dioxide from the air and store it in the ground
  • direct air capture systems and retrofits to existing industrial and power plant exhausts to capture carbon dioxide and use it to make alternative products or permanently sequester it deep underground.

The new Climate Innovation Workgroup will be part of the National Climate Task Force, and their scope will cover the key areas mentioned above. In addition to support technologies that are near commercialization, the group will emphasize research to bolster and build domestic critical clean energy supply chains and strengthening American manufacturing creating well-paid jobs. President Biden is committed to launch an Advanced Research Project Agency – Climate (ARPA-C), and this is making a first step in that direction.

The first concrete example of the administration’s innovation effort is $100 million in funding to support transformational low-carbon energy technologies. The funding will go via the Department of Energy’s (DOE) Advanced Research Projects Agency – Energy (ARPA-E) who are looking for proposals to support early-stage research into potentially disruptive energy technologies specifically encouraging inter-disciplinary approaches and collaboration across sectors.

The ARPA-concept

So, what is the ARPA model that President Biden seem to favor? It all started with the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA), and to date there are three ARPAs; DARPA, ARPA-E and an Intelligence Advance Research Projects Agency (IARPA). The three ARPAs all have an ambitious innovation organization model pursuing mission-oriented, high-risk/high-reward breakthrough research, development, and implementation of technologies

DARPA was founded in 1958 as a response to the Russian Sputnik mission in 1957. The United States made a commitment to, from that time forward, be the initiator and not the victim of strategic technologies surprises. The mission of DARPA has stayed the same; to make pivotal investments in breakthrough technologies for national security. DARPA explicitly reaches for transformational change instead of incremental advances. Working with an innovation ecosystem inside and outside the government, DARPA has delivered not only for the military, but also for the civilian society for example Internet and Global Positioning System. The success of DARPA has in part been accounted to their organization and operational structure with non-standard hiring authorities and alternate contracting vehicles. At the core of DARPA are the program managers, leaders in their fields that are hired for a three-to-five-year period tasked to address challenges broadly, spanning the spectrum from deep science to systems to capabilities, but ultimately driven by the desire to make a difference.

The much younger ARPA-E was created as part of The America COMPETES Act in 2007, with its first appropriations in 2009. Since then, ARPA-E has provided $2.6 billion in R&D funding to over 1000 projects.  As a result, 88 companies have been founded and 177 projects have attracted more than $4.9 billion in private-sector follow-on funding. ARPA-E focus on transformational energy projects with high potential and high impact energy technologies that are too early for private-sector investment. However, some critics say that the ARPA-E projects are not transformational enough in nature, and despite strong performance in numbers, the success of ARPA-E in achieving its mission is still under discussion.

IARPA was created in 2006 to conduct cross-community research, target new opportunities and innovations, and generate revolutionary capabilities, while drawing upon the technical and operational expertise that resides within the intelligence agencies. IARPA’s programs are uniquely designed to anticipate the long-term needs of, and provide research and technical capabilities for, the Intelligence Community. Agility is key in the IC and IARPA’s approach is to always look for, and seek out, new innovative ideas and perspectives. 

Will ARPA-C round out the foursome, and if so, will it be the right answer to address the need for transformational climate innovation? And will the administration manage to get the funding from Congress? We will of course follow the development and welcome you to contact our office if you would like to discuss this further.

Maria Lönnberg