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Steven Chu puts clean energy on faster learning curve

DOE chief says research will reshape energy's future, enabling grids that run on renewable energy and creating batteries and vehicles that are both more efficient and powerful.

Energy Secretary Steven Chu at the ARPA-E Energy Innovation Summit today.
Martin LaMonica/CNET

NATIONAL HARBOR, Md.-- Steven Chu is on the hunt for technology breakthroughs that will make renewable energy affordable and thus improve the long-term economic health of the U.S.

During a keynote talk at the ARPA-E Energy Innovation Summit here today, the Department of Energy secretary used the history of aviation and automobiles to demonstrate how innovations in science, often funded by government, have changed how we live and brought prosperity to the U.S.

Looking ahead, he said rapid advances in renewable energy and storage mean that electricity can be delivered without transmission lines in remote areas of the U.S. and in areas of developing countries that lack a power grid. In autos, vehicles using light-weight materials and other technologies promise to slash emissions while boosting the power of autos, he said. The ARPA-E agency was created to fund this type of research, which is high risk but has a potential for breakthroughs within three to five years.

"This is what ARPA-E is all about: invent a new learning curve and let it compete with other technologies that are out there," Chu said during his keynote speech.

In solar photovoltaics, for example, the price has fallen to below $1 per watt for a panel, faster than predicted and to a level that's many times lower than four years ago.

Batteries, too, are advancing rapidly. One ARPA-E grant recipient, Envia Systems, yesterday announced a more energy-dense lithium ion battery that it says will be cheaper than today's batteries and allow for an electric car with a 300-mile range.

"If you asked me 10 years ago how I thought batteries would improve, I would have grossly underestimated what actually happened just in the last three of four years," Chu said during his talk.

The U.S. is competing against other countries pursuing energy technologies as well. History shows that it's difficult to predict oil prices or which technologies are game-changers, but technological change can lead to economic windfalls, he said. The Wright brothers were the first to build an airplane, but the U.S. lost the lead to Europeans during World War I. Then, a congressional act in 1925 set the stage for the U.S. to recapture the lead in aviation, Chu said.

The Energy Department has held the ARPA-E Summit the last three years to showcase the research that it is funding and, indirectly, argue for continued funding. The agency, originally funded through the 2009 stimulus, operates with a $180 million budget this year and is requesting more for next year.

The DOE faces hostility from some members of Congress who have fiercely criticized Chu and the department because of the failure of solar company Solyndra, which was funded via a different loan guarantee program. In a talk with reporters after his keynote, Chu said that funding energy research through ARPA-E has good support in Congress.

"All the things I'm talking about rely on America's sweet spot" in technology development and innovation, he said. "In terms of research, I see a lot of bipartisan support."