Energy Innovation in the 21st Century

Quoting Albert Einstein, Dr. Arun Majumdar declared that “We can’t solve problems by using the same kind of thinking we used when we created them.”  Majumdar, Director of the Advanced Research Projects Agency – Energy (ARPA-E), stressed that this kind of thinking was at the heart of the mission of the agency he leads.  During the ‘Tuesday’ Innovation Policy Discussion Group meeting, moderated by Kent Hughes, Director of the Program on America and the Global Economy, Majumdar focused on energy innovation, advancements in technology for renewable energy sources, and how the United States can benefit in the long run from the development of renewable technologies.

Majumdar first drew parallels between the reasoning for the creation of DARPA (Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency), and the April 2009 launch of ARPA-E.  While DARPA came predominantly as a response to the Soviet Union’s Sputnick launch, ARPA-E can be seen as a call for the U.S. to take a technological lead in transformational energy development.  He noted, “We need to inspire the next generation of kids to do things like they did in response to that (earlier challenge).”

He cited two examples to support this view, the first regarding lithium-ion battery manufacturing volume.  In 2009, prior to the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, the U.S. had less than one percent of battery manufacturing world-wide, a figure Majumdar described as “absolutely staggering.”  Secondly, Majumdar mentioned U.S. dependency on foreign oil, highlighting the fact that the U.S. imports approximately 60 percent of its oil.  He emphasized that this dependency on oil highlights the importance of energy innovation as being “at the core of our national security, economic security, and environmental security.”

Majumdar then touched on domestic CO2 emissions.  He noted that the global average of CO2 emissions per capita, per annum was 5-6 tons, while the U.S. remains approximately four times higher at 19-21 tons per capita, per annum. Majumdar described this U.S. CO2 path as “business-as-usual.”  However, he argued that indicators show economically growing nations like China and India are willing to take a “greener” path, with a possible fixed price for carbon due in part to economic considerations. The technological opportunity granted by such a transition to a “greener” path constitutes “not just a technological opportunity, but a business opportunity for the United States.”

Majumdar further stressed that energy can also be an economic issue, with the need of reducing cost to best increase usage.  Affordable scalability remains a fundamental aspect of the discussion as Majumdar remarked, “cost is a huge issue for us, because if it is not market compatible, then it is not going to fly.”

“The next twenty years have to be the most inventive time in our history.”  Majumdar noted. Specifically Majumdar cited needed innovations in solar power generation, carbon capture technologies, more efficient car batteries, and more efficient energy consumption in buildings and homes.  While he remained very optimistic, Majumdar also emphasized the issue of managing expectations, both technologically and economically as he claimed that it is important to expect an appropriate period of ten or more years for what he called “home-run” expectations.

Posted by:  Matthew Robinson

Photo credit: David Hawxhurst, Woodrow Wilson Center

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One Response to Energy Innovation in the 21st Century

  1. Pingback: Clean Energy Investment and Innovation « America and the Global Economy

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