ARPA-E tilts toward cyber


ARPA-E, which focused on making grants to early-stage energy companies under the Obama administration, may find a new lease on life as a cybersecurity skunkworks.

The Advanced Research Project Agency-Energy, created under the George W. Bush administration to foster innovation in energy technology, is targeted for elimination in the White House's 2019 budget.

"This is about as dramatic as it gets in science and technology policy," Chris Fall, ARPA-E's principal deputy director said in his in remarks at the agency's ninth energy innovation summit near Washington, D.C., on March 13.

ARPA-E "is at a crossroads, but we still have to think about the future," Fall said. That future, he told his audience, should show it can do valuable work beyond issuing simple grants to companies and academia for new tech.

ARPA-E and its partners should be the "special forces" for the energy arena, able to quickly develop new capabilities and tools beyond the traditional areas of renewable energy and energy management technologies, he said.

Cybersecurity and resilience for the energy grid are prime areas where ARPA-E could be instrumental in helping develop new approaches or technologies quickly, Fall said.

It could also be more nimble and act more quickly than the larger Department of Energy could, especially in cybersecurity to counter a rapidly developing threat, he said.

"It takes years of budgeting" for large agencies to develop big plans. ARPA-E, he said, offers agility and the willingness to take technological risks to address those issues quickly. "We can do that now," Fall said.

Energy Secretary Rick Perry has placed a premium on countering cybersecurity threats to the nation’s power infrastructure. In its fiscal 2019 budget document, the department asked to establish a separate account for cybersecurity, energy security and emergency response. The separate CESER account, Perry said in a February announcement, would consolidate funding to address the agency's expanded cybersecurity responsibilities.

Energy officials have told FCW that CESER was requested to give the issues of cyber and physical attacks more visibility and to deal with some of the details of attacks aimed at energy infrastructure.

Norm Augustine, co-chair of the American Energy Innovation Council likened ARPA-E's importance to that of the Defense Department’s Advanced Research Projects Agency that has been a source of innovative, outside-the-box, collaborative thinking for decades.

"They can make decisions quickly, unfettered by procurement" that can bind larger agencies and prevent them from getting effective solutions deployed effectively, he said.

In a video statement to the convention, the ranking member of the House Science, Space and Technology Committee, Rep. Eddie Bernice Johnson (D-Texas) said she was still backing the ARPA-E reauthorization bill that would fund the agency.

She said her bill had the support of 29 Democrats and 10 Republicans so far.

CORRECTION: This article was updated Mar. 14 to clarify that ARPA-E gives grants to early stage research projects..

About the Author

Mark Rockwell is a senior staff writer at FCW, whose beat focuses on acquisition, the Department of Homeland Security and the Department of Energy.

Before joining FCW, Rockwell was Washington correspondent for Government Security News, where he covered all aspects of homeland security from IT to detection dogs and border security. Over the last 25 years in Washington as a reporter, editor and correspondent, he has covered an increasingly wide array of high-tech issues for publications like Communications Week, Internet Week, Fiber Optics News, magazine and Wireless Week.

Rockwell received a Jesse H. Neal Award for his work covering telecommunications issues, and is a graduate of James Madison University.

Click here for previous articles by Rockwell. Contact him at [email protected] or follow him on Twitter at @MRockwell4.


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