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Talking Energy Innovation with ARPA-E’s Cheryl Martin, Part 3: Linking States to Federal Energy Research

I recently sat down with Dr. Cheryl Martin, the Deputy Director of ARPA-E, the federal government’s premier program for investing in high-risk, high-reward energy research and development. The interview covered a lot of ground and touched on different aspects of America’s energy innovation ecosystem, so it’s being published as a multi-part series, lightly edited, and broken up into cohesive topics.

In part 1 of the interview, Dr. Martin took a deep-dive into the lessons ARPA-E has learned in its few short years of existence. In part 2, we covered ARPA-E’s efforts to link research and emerging technologies to the marketplace. In particular, Dr. Martin discussed the independent path ARPA-E is traveling by building relationships with potential end-users of emerging energy technologies, like companies, the Department of Defense, and utilities such as Duke Energy.

Dr. Cheryl Martin, Deputy Director of the Advanced Research Projects Agency–Energy (ARPA-E).

Dr. Cheryl Martin, Deputy Director of the Advanced Research Projects Agency–Energy (ARPA-E).

But one potential partner often not discussed at length in national energy policy discussions is states. States are in many ways more active in the clean energy space than the federal government, in particular on technology deployment policies. Over 20 states have created clean energy trust funds supported by dedicated revenue streams like public benefit charges. Thirty states and the District of Columbia have enacted renewable portfolio standards and another eight states have set voluntary clean energy market share goals. Almost half of all states offer clean energy tax credits or grant programs. And 41 states offer various forms of clean energy loan programs.

In other words, the states are aggressively active in clean energy and offer a suite of support levers for later-stage deployment and market development. Yet most states do not invest significant public dollars in energy research, as larger programs like New York’s NYSERDA and California’s PIER are typically the exception and not the rule. So linking federal energy research with state deployment efforts is a potential fit. From ARPA-E’s perspective, is there potential in it working with states as a potential end-user or collaborator?

Cheryl Martin: Yes, but I think there are different ways it will play out. We see some of our projects ­­­ working with state programs like NYSERDA, while others are test-bedding technologies with regional electric providers. These projects have progressed because of their local ecosystems.  So while I think the federal government has a huge role to play, so do state and local governments and organizations. Energy does tend to be somewhat more local so what’s a particular interest in Texas is probably a little bit different than what’s an interest in central California. When those interests match up with local businesses and efforts, I think it’s awesome.

To dive a little deeper into this, many clean energy technologies will commercialize and deploy at the local level yet energy research is most often funded at the federal level. There’s an obvious institutional gap there. How can ARPA-E and the states help bridge that gap?

Cheryl Martin: I think the same way we’re doing it today. We encourage the research teams to understand what happens next. I say this a lot, it’s a three year grant. So what happens when a project gets to month 37? Where are you going to take your technology next? And what do you have to do to get there? If they need more funding because they’re early stage, maybe there is a local community or state level organization that they can find an opportunity to continue the research. Maybe they’ve got something like a Nortech in Ohio or the Los Angeles CleanTech Incubator that wants to do next stage demos. We’re encouraging people to be aware of their communities through the life of the project.

I think the states and communities that are doing the best job in moving technologies forward are looking at what do they already have from either a knowledge or asset infrastructure and how can they leverage that. You know it worries me if a state says, “we can do everything.”  I say, well, OK, but aren’t there some things you would be better at, a specific asset that you have that makes you unique? I was really excited when I heard Nortech did a strategy study of what types of resources they have in northern Ohio and how they could leverage it. That makes a lot of sense to me. They put together their own consortium of battery companies based on their legacy of past fuel cell work, helping to form their own ecosystem and find what they’re best at.

We saw that at the Summit. Lots of local groups were already plugged in, and that is key to building communities and moving technologies forward. I think events like the Summit and our workshops really help people to engage with each of the projects and their communities.  We help our awardees and other members of the community by asking, how are you going to move what you’re doing forward? It’s very much that local and community oriented blocking and tackling and then seeing how it comes together.

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