Bringing a little cheer to energy innovation

There’s glitter all over the carpet in the hallways at the Gaylord National Resort, a sprawling hotel that sits on the shores of the Potomac River just south of Washington, D.C. It’s definitely not from the thousands of energy geeks that are arriving at the hotel on Sunday night to kick off several days of discussions and meetings about next-generation energy technology for the ARPA-E Summit. It’s the aftermath from thousands of preteen girls, decked out in hotpants, ponytails and ribbons, that just spent two days cheering and dancing their way through a large cheer competition.

The two events seem about as different as when the Consumer Electronics Show used to coincide with Adultcon in Vegas. But the clean energy and energy efficiency industries could use some of the cheerleader’s glitter and cheer spirit right about now.

Following the close of a year which saw the politicization of clean energy technologies, the struggles of dozens of solar manufacturers and electric car companies, and a “cleantech cliff” that saw investments in cleantech startups drop by a third, the 2013 ARPA-E Summit will likely be a pretty sober affair.


As MIT Tech Review wrote recently, government energy R&D spending in 2013 is facing a fiscal cliff, and venture capitalists won’t likely flock back to pumping money into energy companies this year. Both of which mean funding for entrepreneurs, innovators and researchers that have bright ideas for things like next-generation batteries, low cost biofuels, or futuristic solar materials will be difficult to get this year. Or at least it’ll be a lot harder to find money for these technologies than it was a few years ago.

The silver lining of money being tight is that only the most promising technologies will get funding, and there will be less “dumb money,” so to speak. As a seatmate of mine on the flight over this morning put it: the state of clean financing is awful but it inevitably had to correct itself at some point.

Altaeros Energies High Altitude Wind Turbine

Altaeros Energies High Altitude Wind Turbine shown off at ARPA-E 2012

But in the face of these more difficult times, another way to look at the ARPA-E program — which gives small grants to early stage projects and was modeled on the Defense Department’s DARPA program — is perhaps it could be the energy industry’s bit of glitter and cheer. It’s one of the few funding programs from the Department of Energy that has bipartisan support, will likely be able to maintain its current annual budget and is widely celebrated by entrepreneurs, politicians and academics alike.

The ARPA-E Summit itself draws some of the bigger names in technology and politics as speakers — this year New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg and Tesla CEO Elon Musk. In previous years Bill Clinton, Bill Gates and Arnold Schwarzenegger have given rousing speeches.

ARPA-E 2013 will be one of the last places that we’ll be able to hear from soon-to-be-leaving DOE Secretary Steven Chu. Chu has been one of the biggest influences on the U.S. Department of Energy over the last several decades.

I’m personally looking forward to moderating a discussion between IDEO’s David Blakely and Otherlab’s Saul Griffith about the importance of storytelling and narrative for early stage energy technologies (we’ll be live streaming it here for free on Monday at 4:30 PM EST). Particularly in difficult times, creating compelling narratives for next-gen clean energy technologies that could be decades from commercialization will be crucial.

As the energy geeks wake up on Monday morning ready to talk about kilowatts and sunshots with their peers, the cheerleaders will have mostly gone home. But perhaps, in a strange way, they don’t have so little in common after all.