Bill Gates gives a boost to ARPA-E, the feds’ endangered energy research agency

Geek Wire BY ALAN BOYLE on September 11, 2017

ARPA-E works on technologies ranging from power grid improvements to nuclear fusion. (ARPA-E via Twitter)

Microsoft co-founder Bill Gates is putting in a plug for the federal government’s energy research agency, ARPA-E, just when it’s in need of a power surge.

The Advanced Research Projects Agency – Energy was created in 2009 within the U.S. Department of Energy to support technology development in the energy realm. The Pentagon’s Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (a.k.a. DARPA) serves as its model.

ARPA-E has funded initiatives ranging from improvements in electric grid management and power conversion, to more energy-efficient windows, to lower-cost solar power systems, to plasma research for nuclear fusion power.

The beneficiaries of the fusion research program include the University of Washington and Redmond, Wash.-based Helion Energy.

ARPA-E’s work strikes a chord with Gates because of the billionaire’s involvement in Breakthrough Energy Ventures, a $1 billion investment fund that Gates (and Amazon’s Jeff Bezos, among others) bought into last year to back commercial energy initiatives.

We’ve never had such an urgent need to move from one energy source to another. @ARPAE can help get us there faster

In today’s blog posting, Gates compares ARPA-E’s support for energy research to the DARPA efforts that led to the global internet.

“ARPA-E is bringing private investors to the table, and it is delivering results,” Gates says. “So far, its projects have resulted in the creation of 56 new companies.”

Gates also sees similarities to the National Institutes of Health, which provides billions of dollars in backing for medical research annually.

“If ARPA-E does for energy what DARPA did for computing and the NIH does for health, it will be one of the smartest public investments I can imagine,” he says.

The problem is that ARPA-E hasn’t been getting a whole lot of love from the incoming Trump administration. Gates may consider it his “favorite obscure government agency,” but in his preliminary budget blueprint, President Donald Trump eliminated funding for ARPA-E entirely.

Budget-writers in the House followed suit, X-ing out ARPA-E for fiscal year 2018. Their counterparts in the Senate set a different course, however, and bumped up the agency’s budget by 8 percent.

In the weeks ahead, the agency is likely to find itself in a life-or-death budget battle. Which may be exactly why Gates weighed in with a strong vote of support today.