Spending Bill Gives Green Energy Its R&D Budget—But That’s Not All It Needs

Computers and iPhones don’t go to heaven. Instead, 80 percent of US electronic waste ends up in landfills or incineration furnaces. Materials scientist Victoria Chernow thinks that science will be able to change that. She says there might be a way to salvage the more than five pounds of gold, nearly 2,000 pounds of copper, and 55 pounds of silver hidden in a haul of 100,000 smart phones—using microbes. Basically, synthetic probiotics that act as tiny garbage collectors.

Chernow is a fellow at the Advanced Research Projects-Energy, an agency created by the Bush administration in 2007 that got its inaugural $400 million budget during the stimulus package in 2009. Its mission is to incubate disruptive energy technologies—like Darpa, but for energy instead of the military. President Trump’s proposed budgets for 2018 defunded ARPA-E. But in the spending bill Trump signed on Friday afternoon, ARPA-E got a budget bump, up to $353.3 million up from $306 million in 2017.

Which reflects a larger theme in the bill—energy and science did pretty well. The Energy Department’s budget increased to $34.5 billion, up $3.77 billion from last year, though it still only accounts for 0.03 percent of the total budget.

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To those in the field, this is the best news possible for energy research in the current administration. “I don’t think the politics allow for anything bold,” says David Hart, senior fellow at the Innovation Technology and Information Foundation and professor of public policy at George Mason University. “But if the baseline is cutbacks, we avoided that and even took a step forward.”

Much of that money will go towards boring but necessary infrastructure improvements—building the labs, conference rooms, and robots that our country’s scientists and engineers need. Daniel Schwartz, director of the Clean Energy Institute at the University of Washington, says that he was beginning to grow concerned at the lack of US investment in this hardware, compared to other countries. Other than the 2009 stimulus package, there hasn’t been much money dedicated to this basic infrastructure.

Within the Department of Energy, every program will see at least a 10 percent increase in their budget. And advanced computing and fusion power research—a long-promised and oft-overhyped form of nuclear energy—get an extra raise. At this moment, 35 countries are collaborating on ITER, an experimental magnetic fusion device in southern France, and with this bill the US increased its investment to $122 million.

ARPA-E, though, will continue to use its allocation to give smaller grants to scientists like Chernow. Her cutting-edge e-waste annihilation plan is a typical investment for the organization. ARPA-E funds relatively small energy projects that are too risky for other government organizations or the research and development departments of corporations to justify. “These offices were really slated for sharp declines, and Congress has made sure to make this critical investment in maturing ideas and exploring how they might be applied to energy technology,” says Schwartz.

Of course, Trump’s efforts to roll back clean energy programs are still having immediate consequences. While other countries (cough, China, cough) are investing billions in renewable energy programs and electric vehicles that will sink future utilities bills, Trump has distributed tax and regulation breaks to make fossil fuels great again. Policy decisions like the new 30 percent tariff on imported solar panels could have a much larger effect on how the US deploys the research that scientists have already done.

Chernow says she is glad that she can continue her work, which rests somewhere between the basic science of universities and more commercial enterprises. “ARPA-E really likes to pinpoint research areas that are outside the purview of other government agencies, and help fund projects that will be transformational,” she says. The question is when the transformation will come.

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