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