Innovation Rules at ARPA-E Energy Summit Conference
NATIONAL HARBOR, Md. — It’s not a conference so much as a dream factory that’s transpiring through Friday on the shores of the Potomac River.
Now in its 13th year, the ARPA-E Innovation Summit is a three-day program of lectures, networking events and exhibition hall displays all aimed at one thing — moving transformational energy technologies out of the laboratory and into the market.
To judge by the conversations transpiring in the vast hallways of the Gaylord Convention Center this week, every one of the thousands of people gathered at the summit is success-oriented and most are looking for partners, whether they be government grantors or well-heeled entrepreneurs looking to take a chance on a well-vetted dream.
According to Energy Secretary Jennifer Granholm, who moderated a session with a trio of entrepreneurs Wednesday morning, a number of factors make “investment in America just irresistible” right now.
In fact, in some ways, the summit’s 13th year may be the luckiest of years for the current crop of attendees.
With $1 trillion in funding from the Bipartisan Infrastructure and Jobs Act, $280 billion from the CHIPS and Science Act, and another $1.9 trillion available from the American Rescue Plan — and a directive from President Joe Biden to reduce the nation’s greenhouse gas emissions by at least 50% from 2005 levels in 2030, the government has likely never been as ready, willing and able to help bring drawing-board projects to fruition and 3D concepts into the realm of startup businesses.
“What this administration and Congress have done is not only given [this sector] the tools in the tool belt it needs to foster innovation, but they’ve also shown that they have a strategy for moving forward,” said David Turk, deputy secretary of Energy, during an onstage discussion with Don Graves, deputy secretary of Commerce.
“In the past, if I can be blunt, I think we’ve been asleep at the switch when it comes to clean energy,” Turk said. “We’ve innovated through our national labs, our universities and our entrepreneurs, and then we’ve said, ‘Let’s just leave it to the global marketplace to determine how successful these efforts are.’
“Well, what’s happened over the years as a result is other countries have taken advantage of our breakthroughs and gotten the bulk of the jobs and the manufacturing,” he said. “I’m not sure our fellow Americans have internalized the change, in terms of opportunity, the Biden administration has created.
“This isn’t top-down communist five-year plan kind of stuff. It’s a uniquely American industrial strategy that empowers and unleashes entrepreneurs and makes money for companies and builds manufacturing facilities.”
“What we’re really doing here, as the Commerce and Energy Departments, and as an administration, is acting as partners,” he said. “And because we are not a command economy, like some of our competitors and adversaries, we do have to approach things in a uniquely American way.
“It’s not about picking winners and losers, but about setting up the types of systems and ecosystems that allow our ideas to flourish.
“So what we’ve done, to cite just one example, is invest development dollars in making sure every single family, every household, and every community and business has connectivity to high-speed internet and broadband, so people can actually take their ideas, their hopes and their dreams and turn them into reality.
“And it’s not just about that. It’s about investing in ways that we’re lifting regional and local areas so that they too can be part of the American success story,” Graves said.
What one might call the first harvest of this approach was very much in evidence in the exhibition hall, where scores of booths contained information and mockups of technologies still in their fledgling stage.
Many of the booths were populated by colleges and universities ranging from Johns Hopkins to Clemson to the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Others were showcases for entrepreneurs and global companies, like Boeing, GE and Westinghouse.
Manning the National Aeronautics and Space Administration’s booth was Ian Jakupca, of the fuel cell branch of the agency’s Glenn Research Center in Cleveland, Ohio.
The idea of partnerships furthering innovation was much on Jakupca’s mind.
During a lengthy conversation that touched on everything from hydrogen’s role in enabling men and women to one day live on the moon for extended periods to the viability of electric passenger planes, the NASA scientist offered that few if any of the big ideas in the expensive room would come to fruition without some kind of public/private collaboration.
“In our case, NASA develops technologies, so that industry can create the capability, and there’s a fundamental difference between those two roles,” he said. “A technology is something that enables a capability.
“So as you look up and down this row,” he continued, gesturing to other booths, “what you see are a number of companies that have SBIR — Small Business Innovative Research — contracts with NASA to develop our technologies.
“You see, the question we as an agency always have to ask is, ‘How do we demonstrate that something is feasible?’ ‘How do we demonstrate that you can do something not just once, but maybe two or three dozen times?’
“Essentially, NASA’s role is to start the process, and then we reach out and try to find a partner who then licenses the technology and tries to commercialize it, mass producing it to create a capability that can benefit both us and society at large.”
These days one of NASA’s keen interests is in the further development of hydrogen fuel cell technology.
“It’s my responsibility to make sure that NASA stays up to speed on the latest ways the agency can use hydrogen for power,” Jakupca said. “I mean, here on Earth, we’ve had 10,000 years to create the manufacturing infrastructure that we need. We can pick up the phone and order what we want, right?
“But how do we do that on the moon? We can’t afford to ship everything we need from the Earth to the moon, let alone Mars. We have to make it when we get there. And that’s why the innovations you see at a conference like this are so important,” he continued. “These are some of the answers to some very tough questions.
“In the case of hydrogen … it’s one small element in the overall architecture of surviving … and that’s because it is an incredible power storage medium,” he said. “What we need is to find ways, both here on Earth and in space, to get hydrogen to do meaningful work for us.
“So in this very aisle, you’ll find companies that NASA is investing in to create technologies that produce hydrogen from water or other feedstocks and then to store it for conversion later into either electrical power or other products,” he said.
Dan can be reached at [email protected] and at https://twitter.com/DanMcCue