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Energy Department's advanced energy agency ARPA-E attracts $450M in private funding

Energy Department's advanced energy agency ARPA-E attracts $450M in private funding

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ARPA-E summit 2013 featuring Elon Musk and US Energy Secretary Steven Chu
ARPA-E summit 2013 featuring Elon Musk and US Energy Secretary Steven Chu

The US Department of Energy's effort to fund research into advanced, experimental energy projects to meet the nation's growing demand for power has succeeded on at least one level, attracting some $450 million in private funding into 17 nascent projects, more than six times the amount the government put into those projects.

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"This private capital will allow these companies to further their technologies and map pathways to the market," said Cheryl Martin, deputy director of ARPA-E, the division of the Energy Department in charge of the investments, in her keynote speech at a conference in Washington, DC on Tuesday.

ARPA-E was launched just four years ago by President Obama with a $400 million starting budget. It's modeled after the Defense Department's future military-tech focused arm DARPA, which spawned the prototype of the Internet back in the late 1960s. Since its founding, ARPA-E has invested $770 million in some 285 early-stage energy projects, but winning private backers is key to proving that alternative energy is viable from a business perspective, not just because the government supports it.

That's why at its fourth-annual energy innovation summit this week, which ends tomorrow, ARPA-E highlighted how its initial investment of $70 million in 17 projects in particular has paid off, with private backers pouring in $450 million of their own funds. The 17 projects that have won private funds so far include a range of new energy technologies, but most are based on improving renewable energy storage and output, from long range electric vehicle batteries being developed by California company Envia Systems, to genetically engineered crops containing enzymes that will make it easier convert them into biofuel, which are being created by Agrivida, a Massachusetts company.

Projects include genetically engineered crops for biofuel and longer-range EV batteries

Aside from convincing private investors of its merits, ARPA-E has also accomplished something fairly remarkable for the Department of Energy these days, winning endorsements from Republicans and even getting some to speak at the conference, as Bloomberg reports. That Republican support stands in stark contrast to the way some GOP lawmakers have gone after other Department of Energy investment projects made during the Obama Administration that haven't panned out, namely solar panel manufacturer Solyndra, which wasn't part of the ARPA-E program, but a separate loan office.

Outside of ARPA-E, the Department of Energy has also invested in other uncertain propositions like Elon Musk's Tesla Motors electric vehicle company. Musk himself spoke at the ARPA-E summit on Tuesday, saying that Tesla was ahead of schedule on paying back its $465 million loan from the the Department of Energy. Unlike the The Department of Energy's loan efforts, ARPA-E doesn't necessarily expect a return on its investment, handing out grants for projects the government acknowledges may be risky. That explains some of the pitches for new projects at the conference this week, among them creating reflective leafs to reduce the amount of heat trapped on Earth, as The New York Times reported.

The speaker lineup at this year's conference also featured other high-profile alternative energy proponents including New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg and hedge fund magnate, T. Boone Pickens, who wants to see the US move away from gasoline in cars and toward natural gas, which is more abundant in the country and can produce fewer emissions.