Scientific American: A Historical Tour of the Clean Energy Future

Hoover Dam rose out of the frenzied efforts to combat the Great Depression. Similarly, the fields of heat-focusing mirrors in the California desert known as the Ivanpah Solar Power Facility might come to represent the frenzied efforts to keep the Great Recession from turning into a full blown depression.

“In past recessions, we had great projects come out,” said Michael Splinter, executive chairman of Applied Materials, at the inaugural Advanced Research Projects Agency–Energy summit in 2010. “We need a Hoover Dam of solar; maybe we just surround the Hoover Dam with solar? What are we going to point to in 30 years and say: That came out of the Great Recession of 2009?”

Still, ARPA–E’s current ambitions seems to have shrunk, from funding electrofuels to better air conditioners and better windows. “A 50 percent improvement in how much fuel you need to run an air conditioner is not incremental, but it is not sexy,” admitted the agency’s second director Cheryl Martin in 2013. “Once you demonstrate that it’s possible, then the world changes.”

These arguably unsexy wins serve perhaps to safeguard ARPA–E’s current $300 million or so a year of funding, already a far cry from the $1 billion per year recommended by ARPA–E’s intellectual founders or, more recently, the corporate heavyweights of the American Energy Innovation Council, including Augustine. All told, ARPA–E has invested a total of roughly $1.1 billion in more than 400 projects.

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