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Cerf: ARPA-E Has Promise for DARPA-Like Results

We have an aging power generation and electricity distribution infrastructure that needs to be modernized. Renewable electricity sources are also discontinuous. We need high-performance electricity-storage technology to cope with that. The sources are distributed and we need distributed control systems to manage flows. In short, we need to reinvent the way in which energy is sourced, consumed and managed — we need a sort of energy Internet. These are the reasons ARPA-E was created in the mold of DARPA.

A scientist or engineer with a “bee in the bonnet,” funding and freedom is an unbeatable combination for tackling really hard problems.

If we are to harvest from ARPA-E the kinds of benefits that DARPA has produced during the past 50 years, we must provide patient and persistent funding, staffing and an array of high-payoff challenges to stimulate the research community.

It is sometimes tempting to measure progress in the short term to justify longer-term expenditures. It is here that we may encounter the most serious risk of all: failure to provide support for serious and long-term research and development. Moreover, for the results of research to become useful, it will be important to pay close attention to facilitating the absorption of research results into the private sector. DARPA programs have been structured to allow military departments to participate in early research efforts and to take up new technology as it becomes practical. A similar practice will help to deliver the benefits of ARPA-E research into the energy economy.

As plans for future years develop within the Office of Management and Budget, executive branch departments and Congressional committees, the importance of long-term focus on the really hard energy problems cannot be overemphasized. We have it within our means to create an energy web that can meet our 21st-century needs. Persistence is needed and will pay off in the end.

Vinton G. Cerf is vice president and chief Internet evangelist for Google. He is recognized as one of the fathers of the Internet for his work at the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency.

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