After receiving an unprecedented surge in funding for renewable energy courtesy of the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, Chu set to work hiring big names from the nation's top research laboratories, in order to staff a new agency called ARPA-E, modeled after DARPA, the R&D wing of the Pentagon. In just three years, ARPA-E has made more than 180 investments in basic research projects in renewable energy, and that's in addition to grants issued by the Department of Energy proper, like the one that funded the Ocean Power Technologies project in Oregon.
Michael Grunwald, a veteran reporter for TIME Magazine, is the author of The New New Deal, a new book that details the history of the much-maligned American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (commonly referred to as the Stimulus bill). In preparing to write The New New Deal, Grunwald did extensive research on the Department of Energy's Stimulus-funded quest to uncover an energy alternative to fossil fuels. Recently, I talked to Grunwald about his new book and the "silent green revolution" that is currently underway at the Department of Energy.
The New New Deal is a narrative about President Obama and his $800 billion stimulus bill, but it also has an argument. Can you quickly lay out the argument, and specifically how it relates to research and clean energy?
Grunwald: Sure. The argument is that everything you think you know about the stimulus is wrong. It was not a pathetic failure. It helped prevent a second depression and end a brutal recession in the short term; it was a huge down payment on Obama's campaign promises to transform the U.S. economy for the long term. But clean energy was the real outlier, getting $90 billion when the U.S. had been spending just a few billion a year. There were unprecedented investments in wind, solar, and other renewables; energy efficiency in every imaginable form; a smarter grid; cleaner coal; advanced biofuels; electric vehicles; the factories to build all that green stuff in the U.S., and yes, clean energy research.
In the book you describe a new federal agency, ARPA-E, a stimulus-funded incubator for alternative energy technologies that is the brainchild of Secretary of Energy Steven Chu. Can you describe how ARPA-E came into being?
Grunwald: The stimulus didn't create vast new armies of government workers at alphabet agencies like the WPA or CCC; ARPA-E was its only new agency, with a staff the size of a major-league baseball roster. But it's a really cool agency, the kind of place where Q from the James Bond movies would want to work. It actually had its roots in the Bush administration, when Chu served on a National Academy of Sciences panel on American competitiveness that released a report called Rising Above the Gathering Storm; one of its recommendations was an energy research agency modeled on the legendary DARPA at the Pentagon. The idea was to finance out-of-the-box, high-risk experiments, like an early-stage venture capital firm. Congress authorized it, but never gave it money to launch until the stimulus.
The early days at ARPA-E were pretty insane. Its first couple of employees had to put out its first solicitation, and it was inundated with 3700 applications for its first 37 grants, which crashed the federal computer system. But they attracted an absurdly high-powered team of brainiacs: a thermodynamics expert from Intel, an MIT electrical engineering professor, a clean-tech venture capitalist who also taught at MIT. The director, Arun Majumdar, had run Berkeley's nanotechnology institute. His deputy, Eric Toone, was a Duke biochemistry professor and entrepreneur. Arun liked to say that it was a band of brothers; I like to think of it as a $400 million Manhattan Project tucked inside the $800 billion stimulus.