Trying to Break the U.S. Energy System for Its Own Good

ARPA-E is trying to shake up the 100-year-old U.S. energy system

Inside The American Electric Power Co. Coal-Fired Power Plant

Cooling towers are reflected in a puddle in Winfield, West Virginia.

Photographer: Luke Sharrett/Bloomberg

The White House doesn't want anyone to panic over its new climate rules. Instead of marking a big shift, the Obama team believes the Clean Power Plan is piggybacking on trends already under way in the economy: Natural gas is killing off coal; solar and wind are cheaper than ever; state-level renewable energy and climate policies are spreading. Americans won't feel a thing. 

That's why the head of the Environmental Protection Agency, in her first public appearance since the release of the climate plan, emphasized that the rules wouldn't cause a disruption for energy companies. "I don't expect that the energy industry is going to take a right turn," Gina McCarthy said last week.

Yet just a short jaunt across the National Mall from the EPA's headquarters, another part of the executive branch is taking the opposite approach. The Department of Energy is identifying technologies that make such "right turns" possible and desirable, even for asset-heavy, conservative industries. A program,  Advanced Research Projects Agency-Energy (ARPA-E), already manages dozens of research initiatives to develop basic scientific research into commercially viable technology that, widget by widget, can help rebuild America's 100-year-old power system into something suitable for the 21st century.

This is the part of the government focused on a future of electric cars sipping from the grid instead of the pump and of utilities putting out more power with fewer resources. What the agency does, according to Ellen Williams, ARPA-E's director, is "de-risk" unproven technologies so that companies and investors can have greater confidence in eventual successes. ARPA-E's is a long-term gambit. Here are five obstacles the government future-of-energy program is trying to overcome in the years ahead. 

1. Batteries are so dumb

Lithium-ion batteries, which power computers and electric vehicles, are too heavy, expensive, and wasteful. That's a particularly big problem when it comes to packing many batteries into something small like a car. The units are pressed together, cell by cell, which makes individual components difficult to monitor and manage. The power business generally sells perfection as the norm, with somewhere between 99.9 percent and 99.999 percent reliability.

Amped (Advanced Management and Protection of Energy Storage Devices) is a big project, even for ARPA-E, an effort linking 14 research partners in a bid to make electric car batteries safer, more efficient, and cheaper. Today's batteries are products. ARPA-E wants super-efficient, smart, affordable battery power systems, perhaps even designed to become part of the structure of cars themselves. Ford Motor received $3.1 million to develop a battery that's 10 times more precise than current ones. Palo Alto Research Center is embedding fiber optic sensors into batteries to measure their temperatures and the strains that come as they expand and contract during use. Other groups are working on fault sensors, temperature regulators, and wireless sensing. 

2. Batteries have nasty stuff in them

Researchers on the Range (Robust Affordable Next Generation Energy Storage Systems) program are redesigning batteries to fit the safety, size, and cost requirements of carmakers and utilities. University of Houston and University of Maryland labs are developing water-based batteries that work like today's lithium-ion units but are safer because they use organic chemicals instead of volatile ones. 

3. Rare elements should be used more rarely

China supplies about 90 percent of the world's rare earth metals, a group of 17 chemical elements used in everything from electronics and MRI machines to oil refineries. Industries dependent on Chinese output had a scare several years ago when the world's biggest producer dramatically slashed its exports, sending prices to historic levels. 

ARPA-E funds research determined to squeeze rare-earth metals out of supply chains altogether. The React (Rare Earth Alternatives in Critical Technologies) program works with 14 university, government, and private research partners to develop magnets, motors, and generators that don't require much or any rare earth metal. Baldor Electric, a company in Greenville, S.C., is developing a rare-earth-free electric car motor that's lightweight and has fewer moving parts. 

4. "Waste Water" should be an oxymoron

Energy production requires vast amounts of water for cooling, a problem if the forecast calls for drought. ARID (Advanced Research In Dry cooling) is the ARPA-E project trying to make sense of a future that demands more energy with less water. 

Generators lose some 60 percent of the energy in their fuels as heat. Big coal, gas, and nuclear power plants use water to carry that heat away. The industry has largely abandoned the practice of sucking in water from rivers or lakes, running it through the plant, and flushing it back. Today, many plants reuse water but still lose billions of gallons every day to evaporation. 

ARPA-E has committed $30 million to researchers working on  "dry cooling," which uses air to carry away waste heat. Promising technologies, like those being studied at the University of Maryland, take advantage of novel materials that act as "heat exchangers," removing energy from the water and spitting it out elsewhere. Another technology, under development at Stanford, is a kind of window for infrared energy that vents heat from a building, right up and out of the atmosphere.  

5. The gas that got away

The shale gas industry loses about 2 percent of its product to the sky. That's bad for two reasons: Companies lose money, and everybody loses with more heat-trapping methane accumulating in the sky. ARPA-E is funding 11 university and private research centers to bring advanced monitoring technology to bear on this loss of gas, hence its contrived project name. It's more complicated than turning on mechanical sniffers and tightening leaky pipes. Monitoring systems need to be able to sense the gas but also pinpoint its origin from its direction and flow rate. Gizmos like that will come in handy for both the Clean Power Plan and Obama's next regulatory proposal—released yesterday—which targets this wasted methane. 

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