WASHINGTON Energy Department officials said late last week they are scrambling to assemble a team that will work out details for creating an agile new research agency that will focus on energy technology R&D.
The $787 billion U.S. economic stimulus package signed into law last week includes $400 million to fund the Advanced Research Projects Agency - Energy (ARPA-E), which is modeled after the Pentagon research agency, Darpa. ARPA-E was created last year as part of sweeping U.S. competitiveness legislation, but no funding was appropriated for the agency.
Energy Department officials said there was still no timeline for organizing ARPA-E. "Everybody's crashing" at DoE to work out details, an official said. "We're on it [but] it will be quite awhile" before organizational details are known. DoE officials stressed, however, that Energy Secretary Steven Chu has emphasized in recent speeches the importance of moving quickly to get stimulus money in the pipeline for a variety of conservation and R&D programs. At the same time, officials are mindful that they must work to avoid wasting funds.
The Obama administration has pledged to closely monitor stimulus spending while at the same time seeking to overcome bureaucratic hurdles so stimulus funds can be used to create jobs. President Obama is reportedly set to name Earl Devaney, the Interior Department's inspector general, to help oversee stimulus spending. Devaney, who investigated disgraced lobbyist Jack Abramoff, is expected to be named chairman of the new Recovery Act Transparency and Accountability Board. Devaney, along with Vice President Joe Biden, will coordinate oversight of stimulus spending.
The stimulus package contains about $43 billion for energy efficiency and technology programs, including $4.3 billion for smart power grid R&D. Industry groups and companies large and small are already lining up to win federal energy funding.
Whoever is selected to head ARPA-E must be confirmed by the Senate, meaning the nominee will likely have to wait to get on a crowded Senate confirmation schedule. The director will report to Chu.
According to the legislation creating ARPA-E, the agency will have up to 120 scientific, engineering and professional staffers. The total does not include administrative, clerical and financial staff.
The chief congressional promoter of ARPA-E in Congress is Rep. Bart Gordon (D-Tenn.), chairman of the House Science Committee. Backers said the new energy R&D agency would act as a "broker" that would bring together industry and university researchers with U.S. national laboratories. The stimulus package will fund "renewable energy technology development, standards-setting and deployment of smart grid technologies, demonstration of carbon capture and storage, grants for companies producing advanced batteries and loan guarantees for the deployment of existing clean technologies," Gordon said in a statement.
Alex Dery Snider, a spokeswoman for the House Science Committee, said lawmakers expect DoE to form a task force that would oversee establishment of ARPA-E. "It will be a very lean agency," she said. The director will report to Chu, and "there isn't a lot of up and down" within the organization.
An industry source nevertheless expressed concern about how long it would take to set up the new energy research agency. "How do they expect to spend $400 million quickly if there is no one there?" the source said.
Gordon's panel has created a Web site designed to track federal R&D spending. Along with federal research agencies, the committee is also tracking funding designated for the America COMPETES Act, the legislation that created ARPA-E.