As director of the U.S. Advanced Research Projects Agency–Energy, Ellen Williams plays a pivotal role in cultivating and guiding energy technology discovery and development in the United States. Ensia recently invited Williams to share her views on what we should watch for in the wide world of energy innovation in the months and years to come.
What in your mind is the most important energy innovation of the past year? The past decade?
In the past year, an ARPA-E alumni project called SkyCool Systems has drawn some serious attention for its product, which takes unwanted heat and beams it into space. Originating at Stanford University, the SkyCool team spent years developing its radiant cooling material, which has huge potential for reducing cooling costs for big energy users like office buildings.
What energy innovation news should we be watching out for in 2017?
In just a few months, ARPA-E will be showcasing the next-generation technologies we fund at our annual Energy Innovation Summit. At the Summit, we host a technology showcase of over 250 teams who work on some of the most diverse and interesting energy challenges possible. This year, attendees will get a glimpse of everything from air-conditioning robots, to crop-sensing unmanned aerial systems, to low-cost, iron-based flow batteries.
The mission laid out in our congressional charter is tripartite — we’re charged to improve America’s energy security by reducing energy imports, reduce energy-related emissions, including greenhouse gases, and improve energy efficiency in all economic sectors. Of course, these three charges are interlinked, and our approach to them is also designed to address our goal of ensuring that the United States maintains a technological lead in developing and deploying advanced energy technologies.
Batteries are attractive for future energy storage applications because electrochemical storage can deliver very high round-trip efficiencies, meaning very little energy is lost in charging and discharging. However, other forms of storage, such as pumped hydropower, flywheels and compressed air, can offer alternatives that support the power grid in ways that are complementary to batteries. In addition, sophisticated power routing that leverages advances in better controls, computing, and power conversion could even create “virtual storage,” whereby energy can be held in reserve without physical storage devices. In the end, all of these approaches will help us deal with challenges like energy intermittency and changing demand patterns.
Why is energy efficiency such a tough nut to crack?
One of our new programs, SHIELD, beautifully illustrates the completely new energy opportunities possible due to nanotechnology. The program aims to create window coatings that reduce heat loss (in the winter) or heat input (in the summer). The project teams participating in the program came forward with an outstanding array of different nanomaterials with the potential to meet the program goals.