Will Alternative-Energy Growth Tank During New Fossil-Fuel Glut? [Slide Show]

Scientific American

NATIONAL HARBOR, Md.—The artificial leaf promised to revolutionize the world by bringing reliable modern energy to those mired in poverty. But the company founded to commercialize the research—Sun Catalytix—has found that it needs to concentrate its efforts on something likely to make money in the nearer term, namely the kind of flow batteries that might provide large amounts of energy storage on the U.S. electric grid.

The alternative energy landscape is in tumult, judging by the recent fourth annual summit of the Advanced Research Projects Agency for Energy, or ARPA–E. A glut of cheap natural gas threatens to sweep all other energy sources before it. The so-called "shale gale," as Alaska Sen. Lisa Murkowski put it at the recent ARPA-E energy summit, is forcing a rethink of energy strategy. "Before this so-called shale gale came upon us, groupthink had most of us focusing on energy scarcity," Murkowski noted. "The consensus now is that we have abundant energy. We can't fall into the trap of groupthink again."

Funding for alternative energy—whether from the federal stimulus bill or venture capitalists—has dried up. "We're here because it's ARPA–E, and they have some resources," says Saul Griffith of OtherLab, a research and design firm that has received funding from the agency for researching uniquely shaped tanks for natural gas. "We all suffer from a lack of resources. We all have ambitions that want to go faster and bigger." Or as retired Marine Corps Gen. James L. Jones put it as part of a talk about the link between national security and energy security: "A vision without resources is a hallucination."

More than 250 exhibitors came to show their wares alongside ARPA–E efforts ranging from Smart Wire Grid's power-flow controllers for electricity transmission lines to OPX Biotechnologies's modified microbe that builds liquid fuels from hydrogen and carbon dioxide. "After three years have there been home runs?" asked retiring Secretary of Energy Steven Chu at the summit. "Maybe not, but there are people rounding second or third base."

View a slide show of future energy efforts.

The question becomes: Will energy alternatives falter in the face of a new abundance of fossil fuels as happened in the 1970s and 1980s? "Today we have the gas," observed financier T. Boone Pickens of BP Capital Management, who has been pushing for increased use of natural gas since 1988. "We're fools if we don't use it."

Even ARPA-E has begun to shift its limited funding into projects to enhance the use of natural gas, such as the Methane Opportunities for Vehicular Energy, or the MOVE program, as well as an effort to convert natural gas to liquid fuels via microbes or chemistry. "We can meet U.S. demand for liquid transportation fuels over the next 50 years," argues biological engineer Ramon Gonzalez, ARPA–E program director.

Or is there enough momentum behind alternative energy that the renewables revolution has become unstoppable, thanks to progress in making solar power cheap and the proliferation of wind farms as well as the possibility of electric cars displacing gasoline-powered vehicles? Tennessee Sen. Lamar Alexander drove to the conference in his Nissan LEAF and urged scientists to work on making battery technology cost less. "We are more likely to see electric vehicles as a second car for many Americans when it's cheaper. Most of that cost is in the battery."

The goal of ARPA–E remains to encourage innovation so that sustainable energy solutions, however defined, become the cheapest and therefore most common options. But how many of these exhibitors, like Sun Catalytix, will be showcasing different wares in future? "In the energy domain, we need to get to what is right faster," added OtherLab's Griffith. "That means getting things wrong faster."

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