Building on DARPA’s plan, ARPA-E was established within the Department of Energy in 2007 to promote similar energy innovations. Since then, it has provided more than $3 billion in funding to more than 1,400 projects in advanced energy research and helped bring innovative technologies to market. US Energy Secretary Jennifer Grenholm called it the government’s energy “moonshot factory.”
In January, ARPA-E swore in its new director, Evelyn Wang. Wang is stepping down 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 in early-stage research. Here are a few excerpts from our conversation, edited for clarity and length.
What role do you see ARPA-E playing in the development of energy technology today and how does it relate to the broader Department of Energy?
Energy technologies sometimes take a decade or so to really be deployed in a meaningful and impactful way. I think a lot of the work that the rest of the DOE is often focused on has a roadmap, and they’re focused on short-term wins.
We’re really focused on high-risk, high-reward, potentially transformative energy technologies, and I think we’re in a pretty big space in terms of taking something from the fundamentals to a practical implementation of a prototype that could potentially be commercialized in the future.
And so I think there are complementary aspects, but often we diverge because we’re working on these really risky, long-term technological innovations. That’s where ARPA-E is a huge force, because we’re really taking on things that we don’t know if they’re going to work or not, but that could potentially change the energy landscape. And I think that’s something that a lot of other agencies don’t go through.
What potential areas are ripe for innovation in energy?
In the near term, we are thinking a lot about how to improve semiconductor materials, for example, to create a more efficient network. And we want to think about how we ground our network — underground cabling is really important in a lot of our recent efforts.