The Future of Renewable Energy Lies in the Hands of the Government

When people think of exciting new technologies they often think of Silicon Valley companies like Tesla and Google. However, some of the most important advances in technology are coming from government-funded projects. Many people have heard of DARPA (Defense Advanced Research Project Agency) which paved the way to the internet, but not many know about ARPA-E (Advanced Research Projects Agency – Energy). ARPA-E is funding some of the most important research to solve energy’s biggest problems. The results of their research have the potential to change the energy mix of the United States and so far, they have been very successful. As of February, 2018, there have been 248 patents issued to ARPA-E projects and 1,643 peer-reviewed journal articles published. The projects will have a huge impact on the future of energy—yet the Trump Administration has tried to cut ARPA-E’s funding. The administration argues the private sector should invest in exploring new technologies, and I agree — but this should be done in collaboration with the public sector.

Just as clean air and clean water were determined to be public goods, I believe that the reduction of greenhouse gases is a public good, because climate change also threatens peoples’ lives. As such, the government should work to provide this good. Energy generation is directly tied to carbon emissions. The technologies being developed by ARPA-E funded projects will be the key to lowering our greenhouse gas emissions from energy. The ARPA-E projects working on energy storage are particularly important.

The main drawback of renewable energy sources such as wind and solar is that they can only generate electricity when the wind is blowing or the sun is shining. This often does not coincide with peak demand for electricity. For that reason, we cannot rely on solely renewable energy; we need other forms that can be quickly turned on or shut off to provide electricity to the grid. However, if the energy from renewable sources could be stored and then used whenever needed, then one major limitation would no longer be a factor. Currently there are no batteries that can reliably store electricity on the scale needed by utilities, but ARPA-E funded projects are working to solve this problem.

The implications of this research are huge; energy storage is the key to increasing renewable energy usage. If one of these teams can create a viable way to store solar or wind energy then it will change the energy mix in not only the United States, but the rest of the world as well. If we can eliminate our dependency on coal and natural gas for electricity generation, we will greatly reduce our carbon emissions. Clean energy is an especially useful way to cut emissions because consumers do not have to change their consumptions habits. It is very difficult to encourage lifestyle changes that will cut down energy consumption but no such changes are required if the electricity is coming from zero-emissions sources.

Energy storage is just one example (among many) of important technologies that ARPA-E projects are working on. If anything there should be more funding going to ARPA-E, not less. Yes, there are also some private companies working to solve these problems, but they are constrained by profitability. The public sector must be providing funding and working on clean energy technologies as well. We can’t let research and development stop because the Trump Administration distrusts the science behind climate change. If we want a world without the disappearance of coastal communities due to sea level rise or massive wildfires threatening homes and national forests, then we must keep funding research into renewable energy technology.



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