Like many federal employees, Eric Rohlfing will be watching President Trump on Tuesday night as he addresses a joint session of Congress. Specifically, the chemist will be listening carefully for clues to his future employment status. Rohlfing is the leader of a unique science and technology start-up agency tucked inside the Department of Energy, and he and his staff have been trying to convince the new administration to keep it alive.
The Advanced Research Projects Agency–Energy, or ARPA-E, provides seed money for hundreds of high-risk energy-related projects stuck between research and commercialization. And this week, the fruits of these grants are on display at the annual ARPA-E Summit in National Harbor, Md., a few miles outside Washington. A cavernous convention hall bustles with far-out ways to cool, heat, convert, conserve, or invent energy—all of which could soon be on the chopping block, as Trump discusses how he plans to cut $54 billion from various domestic programs and shift money to the Department of Defense.
Sitting at one table in the convention hall are the Berkeley engineering professors crafting custom chairs and footbeds that keep you warm at the office without turning up the building’s heat. Or the giant harvesting machine that Purdue researchers converted into a robotic sensor—one that can tell which kinds of corn varieties will produce the best ethanol. Then there’s the Iranian-born computer scientist who has devised an optical interconnector to boost the energy efficiency of giant super-computers.
Like Rohlfing, they are all wondering if the new Trump administration—and the yet-to-be confirmed Secretary of Energy Rick Perry—will dismantle or defund their projects. “We just heard about the new Trump budget and the possible cuts to renewable energy,” says Payman Samadi, a research scientist at Columbia University who works on an ARPA-E funded project with several academic partners. Last month, Trump transition team officials were preparing budget cuts to DOE science and research units based on a pre-existing blueprint created by the conservative Heritage Foundation think tank, according to The Hill.
Most of DOE’s money goes to work on the nation’s nuclear weapons and national laboratories, commanding a total budget of $30 billion. Of that sum, ARPA-E and its research grants only account for $291 million. “We’ve been working for a long time,” says Samadi. “Hopefully, there is still a lot of support.”
Other researchers who receive money from ARPA-E say they may switch their focus from saving energy and protecting the planet to keeping America safe. The military needs good batteries so its soldiers and sailors can fight long distances from home without a recharge, just as consumers want a long-lasting laptop.
Alternative fuels and more efficient devices aren’t just environmentally friendly energy-savers. They can also be seen as a way to protect against the unstable countries that provide so much of the world’s oil. That might be the ticket to obtain government funding in the Trump administration’s anti-climate, anti-environment era, according to Craig Evans, CEO of ESS, a small startup based in Portland, Ore., that is building container size iron-salt storage batteries.
“What the DOE is trying to do is make a cleaner and more sustainable environment,” says Evans. “But if going down the safety route and energy security route is the best avenue, then we’ll use it.”
US Rep. Mark Takano, who represents Riverside, Calif., told the crowd of scientists, engineers, and entrepreneurs at the summit that he has adopted a similar pragmatic stance with his anti-environment colleagues in Congress. In fact, he’s part of a group of like-minded House members that focus on promoting battery storage technology, a Capitol Hill caucus that includes Republican climate-deniers as well as fellow Democrats.
“We may justify it under national defense,” says Takano. “You can take the point of view that batteries are good for renewables, but even if you are part of the climate change denial front, you can find strong support to move the industry forward.”
In either case, it will likely be a few weeks before ARPA-E’s Rohlfing knows whether his agency will get the budget axe, survive as an angel investor for immature tech projects, or shift its focus to defense-related energy. The Senate might vote to confirm Perry this week; then, the tough decisions will begin.
In the meantime, Rohlfing says he’ll be using data to make his case that the little agency that could is worth keeping. Since its launch in 2009, 74 of ARPA-E’s grantees have attracted $1.8 billion in private money, while 56 formed new companies. “We will tell our story and will advocate for it as strongly as we can,” said Rohlfing. “That’s my job.”