Circumventing Uncertainty – ARPA-E 2016 Energy Innovators

Everybody knows how hard it is to make intelligent decisions based on fluctuating circumstances and priorities, as well as indecision on the part of those who can affect us.
Yet innovation, entrepreneurship and leadership require mastering the art of managing ambiguity – and indeed in finding the creative opportunities that lurk within it.
The 2016 ARPA-E Innovation Summit proved that one way to manage uncertainty is to just, well, go around it.
In the energy and power sector, we desperately need a regulatory framework for the new energy-power paradigm in order to target research and development dollars and infrastructure investments most effectively and efficiently. Lots of luck getting that in this crazy and contentious U.S. presidential election year with a gridlocked Congress.
Climate change waits for no one. So, fortunately, the intrepid, fearless and brilliant energy-power innovators are not letting that slow down progress to the clean, green economy we need, which will also improve the security of our electric power system and grow the economy.
Ambiguity Creates a Vacuum
This energy-power revolution is happening around the globe and these innovators are determined to have the USA lead the pack – and proving that it’s good for consumers, the planet, jobs and their personal economy. Evidence: ARPA-E’s recent 2016 Innovation Summit. ARPA-E is the innovation arm of the Department of Energy, which has invested $1.3 billion in 475 projects (45 of them have secured additional private funding of over $1.25 billion), according to ARPA-E.
While debate swirls about a carbon tax, the U.S. Supreme Court puts a stay on President Obama’s EPA’s Clean Power Plan, and Senator Murkowski’s Energy Policy Modernization Act languishes in the Congressional morass, the private sector is doing cool stuff.

Photo credit: San Diego Street Light project, GE website
Photo credit: San Diego Street Light project, GE website

For example, there’s street lighting that provides Internet access, alerts police faster to violence in the neighborhood, tracks CO2, increases your safety as you walk your dog or home from work/school at night, and provides data for traffic and weather tracking. Another is handheld monitors you can walk around with to identify toxins in your environment. Even the utilities are stepping up their clean power investments since the COP21 agreement, Jason Grumet, Founder/President of the Bipartisan Policy Center said.
Former Vice President Al Gore told The Atlantic’s Steve Clemons at ARPA-E 2016 that viewing the world through the “magic googles” of focusing on CO2 emissions helps you quickly “see inefficiencies that would otherwise be invisible to you” and opportunities to tap into what he and Richard Branson have called “the biggest business opportunity in the history of the world.” Gore’s investments in these technologies – described in detail in The Atlantic’s November 2015 profile of him by James Fallows – demonstrate that integrating sustainability into the investment criteria improves financial performance.
What if….?
These energy innovators are asking the quintessential “what if” questions to circumvent the regulatory and market uncertainties. These are the questions that “eliminate the constraints we can unnecessarily impost on our thinking due to focus on…limitations,” according to The Innovators DNA.
Victor Abate, SVP and CTO of General Electric said they are even collaborating with their competitors and across industry sectors to expedite solutions and because an open eco-system generally finds better solutions.
EPA Administrator Gina McCarthy told the ARPA-E audience that pressure to address climate change is mounting from business, and from the public to ensure public health and safety. That was reinforced by Patty Durand of the Smart Grid Consumer Collaborative who pointed out that in her organization’s recent research, 90 percent of consumers have a much greater interest in getting their power needs met by clean energy from their utilities.
Policy in the Works, But…
Amy Harder of the Wall Street Journal pointed out that there have been a few bipartisan agreements lately, including: the President’s science budget, extending the production tax credit (and allowing small tech start-ups to access it), and providing exports rights to oil and gas companies.
In addition, we know the COP21 climate change agreement brought some level of certainty to the energy and power markets. But there are no enforcement mechanisms, save public opinion and a slew of independent climate watchdogs.
Senator Lisa Murkowski (R-AK) from the petroleum-dominated state of Alaska (and Chair of the Senate’s Energy & Natural Resources Committee) said she’s working with Senator Maria Cantwell (D-CA) “to find common ground on energy legislation” that improves efficiency, supply, infrastructure and modernizing the grid. Senator Chris Coons (D-MD) said he’s cosponsoring a bill with Murkowski to provide a tax incentive for renewables and carbon sequestration, too. But will these see the light of the Senate floor?
Not bloody likely in this Congress.
But innovators thrive in this chaos of ambiguity and these energy innovators are jumping in head first to seize the moment.
I’ll never look at a street lamp the same again.
As first seen in the Huffington Post