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At MIT, Energy Secretary Chu says he hopes ARPA-E will survive budget cuts

Posted by Scott Kirsner  November 30, 2011 03:47 PM

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U.S. Secretary of Energy Steven Chu was gave a talk at MIT today on "Winning the Clean Energy Race," and I got a chance afterward to ask him about the future of the ARPA-E program, which was created in 2009 to supply grants to "transformational energy research" at universities and start-up companies. Modeled after DARPA, the arm of the Pentagon that helped develop the predecessor to the Internet, ARPA-E is the "Advanced Research Projects Agency for Energy." The program has funded fuel cell research at Harvard, wind turbine development at FloDesign in Wilbraham, and new solar cell production approaches at 1366 Technologies in Lexington, among others.

What will happen to ARPA-E in 2012 and beyond, given the battles in D.C. over deficit reduction, and the possibility that a "sequestering" mechanism could impose across-the-board budget cuts?

Secretary Chu told me that ARPA-E has allies "on both sides of the aisle" who recognize that the program "is doing very well." Despite the budget pressures, he said, "I'd like to see it grow. This is R&D. It's in the sweet spot of the United States." Funding R&D, he said, costs much less that building a first pilot plant for a new generating technology (something the Department of Energy's embattled loan guarantee program has helped underwrite in the past, but perhaps no more.) ARPA-E makes sense, he said, because it focuses on "where the dollars that we do have can be invested with the highest leverage possible."

In September, seven universities and companies across New England were awarded ARPA-E grants.

ARPA-E's director requested fresh funding of $550 million for the 2012 fiscal year, but that money has yet to be appropriated.

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Scott Kirsner was part of the team that launched in 1995, and has been writing a column for the Globe since 2000. His work has also appeared in Wired, Fast Company, The New York Times, BusinessWeek, Newsweek, and Variety. Scott is also the author of the books "Fans, Friends & Followers" and "Inventing the Movies," was the editor of "The Convergence Guide: Life Sciences in New England," and was a contributor to "The Good City: Writers Explore 21st Century Boston." Scott also helps organize several local events on entrepreneurship, including the Nantucket Conference and Future Forward. Here's some background on how Scott decides what to cover, and how to pitch him a story idea.

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