Murkowski Delivers Keynote Speech at ARPA-E Summit

WASHINGTON, D.C. --   U.S. Sen. Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska, today gave the following speech at the ARPA-E Energy Innovation Summit in Washington, D.C.

“Good morning and thank you, Secretary Chu, for the invitation to join you here today.  As I look around the room, I’m reminded of an observation by the astronomer Carl Sagan, who once wrote, “We live in a society exquisitely dependent on science and technology, in which hardly anyone knows anything about science and technology.”  I think we can safely say that this summit, and the folks attending it, are an exception – and I’d like to start by thanking all of you for the ideas and enthusiasm that you’re bringing to the world of energy. 

“I’d also like to thank Dr. Arun Majumdar (Ah-roon Mah-Jum-Dar) for his leadership and willingness to head the ARPA-E program.  I’m the ranking member of the Energy and Natural Resources Committee, and let me tell you – seldom has a more impressive nominee come before us.  Arun, we’re happy to have you at the helm of ARPA-E, and congratulations are also in order for your recent promotion to be Acting Under Secretary of Energy.

“If there’s anything that everyone can agree on, it’s that our nation faces some tremendous energy challenges.  We need to make it cleaner, we need to make it cheaper, and we need to make it more secure.  Achieving any one of those is difficult, let alone all three, and it is exciting to think that some of the solutions might come about as a result of this effort. 

“ARPA-E is a unique program with unique goals.  It has been tasked to hit “home runs” in a game where that type of breakthrough is exceedingly difficult.  Congress recognized early on that APRA-E’s focus on high-risk, high-reward energy technologies meant that it would need more flexibility than most other programs. I believe we struck an appropriate balance – and I’m hopeful that our recent reauthorization, which will make it easier for APRA-E to hire and retain the most talented minds as program managers, will further that goal.

“ARPA-E is fortunate to have a champion in Secretary Chu and a general willingness from Congress to give it a go – especially at a time when much of our focus is on finding ways to reduce spending.  It helps greatly that ARPA-E has already shown an ability to attract private sector investment – with six projects alone having reportedly drawn more than $100 million in private funding.

“Beyond that, it’s also widely acknowledged that we will need genuine breakthroughs, not just incremental advances, to transform our energy supply.  We need to think outside the box.  America is a global leader because of our ability to innovate – not simply taking someone else’s idea and improving it – but coming up with the new ideas in the first place.  To me, it makes sense to give some of America’s best and brightest scientists an opportunity and an incentive to do just that.

“And it’s not just about our competitiveness globally, but in fact the very survival of some of our smaller communities here at home.  In Alaska, our residents on average spend about 44 percent of their disposable income on energy. That is compared to 3 percent to 6 percent for the rest of the United States. Think about that – nearly half of their paychecks go toward keeping the house warm and the lights on.  And then you throw in mortgage payments, grocery bills, water bills… that’s a significant chunk of change.

“I challenge those of you in attendance today, and I challenge officials with the Department of Energy and ARPA-E, to take into account not just the big picture, but also the smaller picture as well.  How a promising technology can be adapted to help our smaller, more remote communities meet their energy challenges.  How these game-changing ideas can be used to lend a hand to small-town America to continue to be a viable location for mom-and-pop businesses, instead of falling victim to higher energy costs and outmigration to the big city.

“We are fortunate to have forward-thinking leaders, like Senator Alexander, in key positions to keep our government research programs alive.  With that being said, I also want to offer a pragmatic assessment of Congressional support for ARPA-E, given the budget constraints we know we will face going forward. 

  • First is the good news – it appears there is strong support within the 112th Congress to continue this program.  262 members of the House voted against an amendment that would’ve taken funding from ARPA-E during the recent debate over a continuing resolution.  I expect you’d find similar support in the Senate. 
  • Second, however, is the hard truth that every program must live within its means.  Last year’s COMPETES reauthorization limited ARPA-E to $306 million in Fiscal Year 2012.  The President’s budget request asks for nearly twice that.  Many programs are never funded at their authorized levels, let alone higher.  At what level Congress will support funding for ARPA-E remains uncertain.
  • Third, because it takes time to bring new technologies to market, we can’t simply cut out existing technologies altogether, as the President’s request seems to do.  Wind, solar, geothermal, and biomass all receive significant budget increases, but hydropower, nuclear, and natural gas are all in line to be cut.  If we do complete a budget this year, I think it will reflect a re-organization and a greater balance of funding between many of those technologies.

“With those realities in mind, I remain hopeful that Congress will continue its support for programs like ARPA-E as we move this country forward.

“ARPA-E prides itself on developing the big, far-out concepts – and make no mistake, we need those – but discovering solutions that can reduce energy costs for our neighborhood mom-and-pop businesses would go along way to generating greater support in Congress.

“Thank you for your time today and thank you all for the great work you’re doing to advance new energy technologies.”