Partisan House Bills Offer Diverging Visions for ARPA–E

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The leaders of the House Science Committee have introduced competing reauthorization bills for the Advanced Research Projects Agency–Energy. The Democratic majority’s bill calls for the agency’s budget to increase from its current level of $366 million to $1 billion over five years, while the Republican-backed bill recommends more moderate growth.


The main stage at the 2017 ARPA–E Energy Innovation Summit.

The main stage at the 2017 ARPA–E Energy Innovation Summit.

(Image credit – ARPA–E)

A new bill introduced July 30 by House Science Committee Chair Eddie Bernice Johnson (D-TX) recommends increasing the budget for the Advanced Research Projects Agency–Energy to $1 billion over the next five years. Not adjusting for inflation, that level is equal to what the landmark 2005 National Academies report “Rising Above the Gathering Storm” envisioned when it proposed creating the agency as a way to advance transformative energy technologies that are viewed as too risky to attract private investment.

To date, Congress has set its sights for ARPA–E considerably lower. The agency’s current budget of $366 million is also its highest appropriation since the Obama administration set it up in 2009 using economic stimulus funds. Although the Trump administration has repeatedly sought to terminate ARPA–E, arguing the private sector could do its work, there has been sufficient bipartisan congressional support to ensure its survival and growth.

Last year, 11 Republicans on the Science Committee and Johnson, then the committee’s ranking member, sponsored a bill that supported ARPA–E but took no position on its budget. While that consensus has fractured in the face of the Democrats’ ambitions for the agency, committee Republicans are continuing to back ARPA–E and on July 23 introduced their own bill calling for a more modest ramp up to a $500 million budget.

Bills re-envision ARPA–E's mandate

In addition to funding increases, both the Democratic and Republican bills propose expanding ARPA–E’s mission to encompass technologies in areas such as nuclear waste cleanup and energy infrastructure resiliency. The Republican bill would further give the secretary of energy discretion to permit work in any area within the mission of the Department of Energy, which oversees the agency.

Both bills stipulate that ARPA–E produce annual lists of completed and potential projects, publish a “strategic vision” roadmap every four years, and undergo a new third-party evaluation within three years. The Democratic bill specifies the evaluation be performed by the National Academies, which completed a review of the agency’s first six years of operation in 2017.

The Republican bill contains additional provisions that aim to guard against duplication of effort with other DOE R&D programs and to verify that grant applicants have unsuccessfully sought private financing or are not otherwise “independently commercially viable.” These measures, which are similar to ones included in last year’s bipartisan bill, reflect common criticisms that Republicans have made of ARPA–E.

Framing the Republican bill as a “reform” as well as a reauthorization, Committee Ranking Member Frank Lucas (R-OK) spotlighted these provisions in a statement, remarking, “ARPA–E is meant to advance truly cutting-edge technologies to revolutionize energy production, development, and use in America. … This bill empowers ARPA–E to work exclusively on this kind of disruptive innovation, ensuring its resources aren’t being drained by duplicative research or technology that could be better developed by private industry.”

In a statement on her bill, Johnson showcased statistics reflecting the various ways ARPA–E’s projects have been successful, including their attraction of almost $3 billion in follow-on funding from the private sector. Justifying a higher budget, she noted the agency has “only been able to support about 1% of the proposals submitted for its open funding opportunities, and 12% of the proposals submitted for its focused programs, even though the number of promising, high-quality proposals that the agency has received is many times higher.”

The 2017 National Academies evaluation found that ARPA–E does work with other parts of DOE, generally on an informal basis, to ensure it selects complementary rather than duplicative projects. It also found that while the agency “created some funding programs for technology areas that the private sector or other federal agencies would have been unlikely to pursue,” it has also “funded projects in areas that clearly overlapped with areas supported by the private sector and other funding agencies.”

In general, the evaluation stressed that the uniqueness of ARPA–E’s role rests in the latitude it grants program directors to seek out potentially high-impact projects and explore the viability of different research pathways. It recommended, “ARPA–E should not be measured by or consider its mission to be serving as the only federal agency funding a technology or funding only transformational technologies. The agency may best be served by a balanced portfolio of projects aimed at attaining both large and small successes, not only ‘home runs.’”

Big budget boost would require renewed ambition

The funding increases recommended in the Republicans’ bill are in line with the agency’s long-term trend of moderate budgetary growth. By contrast, the Democrats’ bill represents a starker departure from the status quo. Its success will hinge on whether it can rekindle ambitions for ARPA–E that have not been pursued in Congress since the period immediately following the “Gathering Storm” report.

Between 2005 and 2010, five bills proposed a rapid initial ramp up in funding for the agency, including one introduced in 2006 by then-Sen. Hillary Clinton (D-NY) featuring a swift ascent to a $2 billion budget. However, the successful bipartisan America COMPETES Acts of 2007 and 2010 settled on short-term funding recommendations near $300 million instead. From 2011 until now, no bill has broached a budget in excess of $400 million, and even those proposals have until recently tracked higher than what appropriators actually provided.

ARPA–E funding profile proposals, 2005-2019

Although House Republicans remain unwilling to entertain a $1 billion ARPA–E budget, the idea could potentially find support in the Republican-controlled Senate.

Earlier this year, Sen. Lamar Alexander (R-TN), who chairs the appropriations subcommittee for DOE, proposed a “New Manhattan Project for Clean Energy” that calls for doubling federal energy research funding over five years. Another key player, Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee Chair Lisa Murkowski (R-AK), said at a hearing in April, “I am all in on what Sen. Alexander has proposed in terms of increasing the funding for research and development and doubling up on ARPA–E.”

Alexander has not explicitly mentioned ARPA–E in his plans. However, in 2006 both he and Murkowski backed the only bipartisan bill to date proposing a $1 billion ARPA–E budget, and both have continued to speak highly of the agency. But even if they and their Senate colleagues agree to ambitious spending, multiplying the ARPA–E budget would entail more than a one-time decision. Unless Congress creates a dedicated funding stream for energy R&D, a sustained and increasing commitment from appropriators would be necessary.

In its appropriations legislation for fiscal year 2020, the House has taken the first step down that road, proposing $428 million for ARPA–E, which is the same amount recommended in Johnson’s bill.* That level is one that Senate appropriators could conceivably match when they release their DOE spending proposal in September. Whether much larger budgets would be forthcoming in future years is a bigger question, not least in view of Alexander’s planned retirement after the 2020 elections.

*Correction: This sentence originally indicated that the House proposed $425 million for ARPA–E, but that amount was later amended to $428 million.

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